The sinister attribution error: Paranoid cognition and collective distrust in organizations

Abstract

Recent social psychological research on paranoid cognition has shown that when individuals are self-conscious or feel under evaluative scrutiny, they tend to overestimate the extent to which they are the target of others' attention. As a result, they make overly personalistic attributions about others' behavior. These personalistic attributions, in turn, foster a pattern of heightened distrust and suspicion regarding others' motives and intentions. Drawing on this research, the present work investigates antecedents and consequences of paranoid cognition in groups and organizations. Results of two studies are presented. Study 1 investigates how tenure in a group or organization affects individuals' self-consciousness and susceptibility to paranoid cognition. Study 2 replicates and extends the results of the first study using a new laboratory analog for studying paranoid cognition in small groups. Implications of the findings are discussed in terms of their contribution to theory regarding the origins and dynamics of collective distrust and suspicion.

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The development of these ideas benefitted greatly from an interdisciplinary seminar on trust and norms organized by Jim Baron. I am also grateful to Susan Ashford, Steve Barley, Bill Barnett, Jon Bendor, Bob Bies, Joel Brockner, Bob Cialdini, Jane Dutton, Alice Isen, Roy Lewicki, Jim March, Joanne Martin, Maureen McNichols, Michael Morris, Jeff Pfeffer, Joel Podolny, Rick Price, Sim Sitkin, Phil Tetlock, Tom Tyler, Kathleen Valley, Karl Weick, and Mayer Zald for thoughtful comments and suggestions they provided at various stages of this research. Earlier versions of this research were presented at the University of Michigan School of Business Administration, the Asilomar Conference on Organizations, Academy of Management meetings, and the Fifth Conference on Research on Negotiation in Organizations.

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Kramer, R.M. The sinister attribution error: Paranoid cognition and collective distrust in organizations. Motiv Emot 18, 199–230 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02249399

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Keywords

  • Small Group
  • Social Psychology
  • Psychological Research
  • Social Psychological Research
  • Laboratory Analog