May 31, 2019

Bad apples attribution theory: why it’s a problem

Improve Culture

by Elizabeth Arzadon

When serious instances of misconduct or poor risk management occur, it is very tempting to assign blame to an individual ‘bad apple’. This interpretation of organisational failure can be so powerful, it often prevails even when evidence of more systemic, cultural issues are overwhelming. Why is this explanation so common? A range of psychological phenomena reinforce this common response, including Fundamental attribution error – the tendency to (unduly) emphasise an agent’s internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, when explaining an outcome or behaviour. This short paper explores underlying reasons for the ‘bad apples attribution’ theory, and why it is a problem.

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