Stop Misjudging. Learn What’s Fundamental Attribution Error

Why we are quick to pin other people's mistakes on their very nature, without even considering that things might have been outside their control? Click To Tweet

Someone is late to a meeting, and we’re quick to conclude they are habitual latecomers. We are late for a meeting, and we explain the traffic was clogged up. See the difference?

We have different yardsticks to measure our flaws against theirs.

We understand what shapes people’s decisions and actions are often the situations they find themselves in. However, there is a mile-long gap between getting it and doing it.

When a person explains their reason for a mess-up, most of us jump the line to pass a judgment on them. We do it even when we understand they might have been in situations outside that made them do that. In fact, we would even advise our friends to give their perps that leeway.

We are great advisors but poor doers. And a bias comes up as we forget to apply our understanding to our behavior.

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is a psychological bias that makes people ascribe other people’s undesirable outcomes to their personality traits, allowing no room for environmental factors.

This irrational tendency to make snap judgments about other people’s mistakes is wrong. It leads us to see that person in a bad light for a long time to come.

fundamental-attribution-error (icons8-team-unsplash)

What is the fundamental attribution error?

The fundamental attribution error, also called correspondence bias or over-​attribution effect, is a cognitive bias that causes people to incorrectly attribute the cause of an event to the actor.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attributing positive or negative outcomes to a person or event rather than to the environment, situation, or goal. Relying on the causal attribution error leads to a host of problems. People may also think the cause of a problem is obvious when it’s not.

It is typically seen in high-​Impact attribution. This was one of the central lessons of the 9/11 attacks.

Another way to see the fundamental attribution error is when we perceive a person makes a mistake because of their very nature, leaving no room for doubt that the events in their life might have been beyond their control.

For example, there is a tendency to attribute positive effects of performance to one’s better skill and effort. This leads to over-​appreciate a person’s skill.

But when performance is under pressure, it is difficult to self-assess our skills. So, in situations of intense stress and chronic fatigue, we mistakenly perceive our performance as good because of the earlier bias.

On the flip side, why do we blame external factors for our own mistakes?

We do so because of the self-serving bias, which lies on the other side of the same spectrum. Self-serving bias is when people usually attribute desirable outcomes to their personality traits and undesirable outcomes to environmental factors.

A self-serving bias is a typical behavior in which a person takes credit for favorable occurrences or outcomes while blaming other reasons for negative events.

Fundamental attribution bias vs Self-serving bias

Why do we make fundamental attribution errors?

When asked why we judged them for their situational behavior, we shield ourselves with the credible excuse of unawareness. We say we blamed them because we did not have all the facts in our hands. “I wasn’t aware of her situation!”

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But research takes the lid off this charade. People commit the FAE even when they know about the whole situation.

So, why do people commit the FAE when they know it is the situation that might have been at play?

There is a multiplicity of different reasons this might come about. 1. We avoid draining our mental energy by considering the situations which might have made them do it.

Our mental resources come in limited supply, and so our brains take the quickest route between a problem and a solution while trying to spend the least energy.

This leads us to take cognitive shortcuts or heuristics and makes us vulnerable to other cognitive biases.

When our mind processes another’s actions, we step across three hurdles.

  • First, we compartmentalize the conduct (that is, what’s this person doing?).
  • Second, we make a dispositional characterization (that is, what does this conduct hint about his personality?).
  • Third, we apply a situational correction (that is, what aspects of the situation might have contributed to this conduct?).

While the first two actions happen much automatically, the third step requires a deliberate sweat on our part. So we often skipped this step, especially in situations where we don’t have the cognitive wherewithal to go through it.

Research shows humans are not good at attributing personal actions to external causes. Our brains have evolved to think in terms of self-​meaning, which means attributing actions and thoughts to our own actions and thoughts.

How do we make fundamental attribution errors?

A fundamental attribution error occurs when people pay too much attention to the action itself or attribute the action to their internal dispositions. Whereas, they fail to consider the possibility it could have been caused by another person.

People have poor knowledge of the other parties’ intentions or goals. It’s also likely that we don’t know the full story of their behavior. We quickly rely on (our) own personal experience or (our) gut feelings to guide what we say and how we act, rather than seeing all the variables.

As the famous quote from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky states:

People project their judgment from others onto themselves.

When we assume a person’s behavior has been intentional, we believe their behaviors come from a place of character, and therefore personal responsibility.

In other words, we think others should have to pay for their own actions. And this is a fundamental attribution error.

What are examples of fundamental attribution errors?

There are many ways that people misattribute the causes of events.

Example 1

A person may blame a fire on a faulty wire or bad ventilation. When a fire occurs in a flammable building, the cause usually becomes clear: the broken sprinkler system. And no one knows for sure who is responsible for starting the fire.

That broken sprinkler head did not start the fire, though it let the fire spread.

But people with this bias, including firefighters, are quick to point their fingers at the sprinkler system.

Example 2

In a classic study by Edward Jones and Victor Harris, university pupils read essays that either defended or condemned Fidel Castro, the leader of the Communist Party of Cuba.

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Some participators were told the author had themselves chosen whether to write for or against Castro, while others were told the writers received instructions to write from an assigned position.

The results surprised the experimenters. Even when the participators were told the author had no choice, they still believed the author’s opinions about Castro were compatible with the argument made in the essay.

Other studies have shown this effect happens independent of participants’ own opinions. Whether they received more information about the author or got instructions to avoid bias, they still did the same mistake of the fundamental error.

Example 3

Another example. Let’s say a gang of burglars broke into your house. They steal a safe. The police raid the house, find the safe, and arrest the burglars.

You recorded everything on video. So you report the crime to the police to state you called them when the crime was taking place. The police officers ask you for a description of the burglars. You say they were three men wearing scarves covering their faces, but not much else.

Soon after, someone calls the police station and gives them a description of the burglars. They show the police officers the video you took before the raid. Based on this, the police officers now arrest you also and charge you with burglary.

Why would the police arrest you for a crime you did not commit? It sounds absurd, right? It is. That wrong ownership of an act is an example of the over​-​attribution bias, or the fundamental attribution bias.

When are we more likely to make fundamental attribution errors?

We’re more likely to attribute motives to others, and we’re also more likely to blame others. However, these tendencies are not explained by judgments about the intention, personal characteristics, and social roles of the actor.

More importantly, these biases are correlated with our judgments about the reality of the situation. They are real.

Research suggests that it is not a coincidence that people readily attribute the success of others to their situations (luck?!) and the responsibility for misfortune to their personality. People attribute more positive motives to themselves and more negative motives to others.

“Dictatorship of the majority” or the “rule of the mob” applies to the common people as well. People attribute more negative motives to others than to themselves.

With that in mind, consider these two statements, as being equally valid explanations of the same event: All white people are criminals. All black people are criminals.

Depending on your point of view, and even according to your frame of reference, these statements are either incorrect or at least not entirely correct. This is a classic attribution error, and it occurs in a variety of domains.

For example, consider the first or the second parts of that sentence. They are clearly not true.

But if you ask me. I’d say I didn’t intentionally write that. It’s just some kind of stupid thing that happened while I was heavily drowsy and my fingers tapped those words into the laptop.

Do you see the drift? Since you’re ready to pin the claim of making those stupid statements on me, I’d find a situation to explain that.

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How can we avoid making fundamental attribution errors?

As with any bias, we can force ourselves to look for ways to analyze the situation more objectively and allow more time into our decision-making.

Gilbert et al. (1988) conducted a study in which participants saw a (silent) videotape of a woman behaving anxiously. For half of them, the videotape’s captions indicated the woman was being surveyed on topics that would make them uncomfortable, such as sexual fantasies. The other half had captions that displayed an interview discussing uninteresting topics, such as world travel.

In addition, the investigators manipulated the participants’ cognitive capacity by telling some of them that they would have to take a recall test regarding the interview topics later. Psychologists call this Cognitive Busyness (PDF) manipulation.

This meant they would be partly distracted while watching the tape, as they tried to remember what was on it.

The results showed, when the participants were distracted (or cognitively busy), they were more likely to make dispositional attributions for the woman’s anxiety.

In other words, their explanations for her anxious address were based on the stable aspects of her personality, and they said she was an anxious person in general.

Those who saw the anxiety-provoking performance realized she was made uncomfortable by the questions. Meanwhile, those who did not have to worry about a memory test afterward made dispositional attributions only if they saw the boring version of the interview.

So, as Gilbert shows, we can avoid being swayed by this bias if we are relaxed, and do not have too many worries and concerns weighing down our mind when a person explains their situation.

Research Studies on FAE

  1. On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error.
  2. How fundamental is” the fundamental attribution error“?
  3. fundamental attribution error? Rethinking cognitive distortions†
  4. “The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research”
  5. From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey

Final Words

Now we have a fair idea about why we underestimate the influence of the situation on people’s behavior, we could train ourselves to listen to their story patiently. All it needs are empathy and acceptance.

Social psychology researchers are motivated to investigate people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. But it is not a perfect science. No science, except maths perhaps, is perfect.

So, far from being impartial, social psychology has produced a number of groundbreaking psychological theories, like the FAE. But, as Sacks (2011) points out, many psychological experiments that have not been carefully controlled are of little use, “because they can produce a high degree of both bias and error.”

Find out how a confirmation bias could ruin your business?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, chief editor of its blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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