The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is when we think someone made a mistake because they’re a bad person, and it’s in their nature, not because of circumstances.
“Why do we quickly pin other people’s mistakes on their character, yet give ourselves a pass for making the same mistake?”
- When an office colleague is late to a meeting, we are quick to conclude they are habitual latecomers even before they get a chance to explain their position.
- When we are late for a meeting, we expect people to understand there must be a valid reason behind it, like there was an emergency situation involving a family member.
See the difference? We have different yardsticks to measure our flaws against theirs.
We are great advisors, but poor doers.
We can usually figure out what shapes people’s decisions, and how their actions often get dictated by their situations. However, there is a mile-long gap between getting it and doing it, and we often fail to apply our understanding to our behavior. That is the issue here today.
So, even before a person can explain their reasons, we jump the gun and pass judgment on their nature. Surprisingly, even when we know deep down that their circumstances might have been beyond their control, we nevertheless hold them guilty by nature.
In fact, we even caution our friends against making hasty judgments about others based on limited information, but we do so ourselves. Let’s dive in to understand why we do so.
1. What is the fundamental attribution error?
The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the human tendency to perceive that the reason behind a person’s mistake is their very nature, leaving no room for doubt that their action might have been because of events beyond their control.
FAE is a psychological bias that’s also called correspondence bias or over-attribution effect. It is a cognitive bias that makes people incorrectly pin a mishap on the other person’s character.
When we witness a result that we don’t approve of in another, we immediately attribute it to their identity, without taking into consideration any external influences.
Simply put, the FAE is an irrational tendency to make snap judgments about other people’s mistakes.
It can lead to a host of problems, one of which is seeing that person in a bad light for a long time.
- When things are going great, we tend to attribute the good results of our performance to our better skills and effort. This often makes us over-appreciate our own capabilities.
- But when we’re performing under pressure, it is difficult to self-assess our skills. In such situations when we’re stressed and fatigued, we mistakenly believe that our performance is still as good as before because we cannot do worse than we did previously.
- When someone else points out our poor performance, we tend to blame external factors for our mistakes and poor results.
And this is 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.
2. Why do we make fundamental attribution errors?
We make fundamental attribution errors because 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.
Also, we avoid draining our mental energy by pondering on the situations that may have led them to do it. Our mental resources, like willpower, come in limited supply, and so our brains take the quickest route between a problem and a solution while trying to spend the least amount of energy.
This leads us to take mental shortcuts or heuristics, which makes us vulnerable to other cognitive biases. (Heuristics are mental shortcuts that can help us with faster problem-solving and decision-making.)
When asked why we judge others 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, like “I wasn’t aware of her situation!”
But research takes the lid off this charade. People commit FAE even when they have a fair idea about the whole situation.
When our mind processes another person’s actions, it has to 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 automatically, the third step requires a deliberate sweat on our part.
So we often skip this step, especially in situations where we don’t have the cognitive wherewithal to go through it.
3. 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.
4. What are examples of fundamental attribution errors?
There are many ways that people misattribute the causes of events.
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.
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.
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 participants 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 independently of participants’ own opinions. Whether they received more information about the author or got instructions to avoid bias, they still made the same mistake of fundamental error.
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.
5. When are we more likely to make fundamental attribution errors?
We are more likely to blame others for their failures and assign motives to their acts. But when are we more likely to commit FAE, even though we know it is the situation, not the person, that is to blame?
First, we make FAE because it saves us mental energy. Second, we are more likely to do it when we are mentally exhausted. Third, we do it when we’re too busy and running short of time. Happy mood increased dispositional attributions, while sad mood decreased them. There may also be other reasons.
According to research, people readily ascribe the success of others to their circumstances (luck?!) and blame their personalities for their failures. They easily give themselves more positive motives, and others, more negative ones.
However, we can’t explain away these tendencies by judgments about the intention, personal characteristics, and social roles of the actor. More significantly, these biases are related to our judgments of the situation’s reality.
“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!
6. 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 answering questions on topics that would make her uncomfortable, such as sexual fantasies. The other half had captions that displayed it was 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 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, they based their explanations for her anxious address on the stable aspects of her personality and said she was an anxious person in general.
Those who saw the anxiety-provoking performance thought 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 minds when a person explains their situation.
Social Psychology Research Studies on FAE
Social psychology investigates people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. But it is not a perfect science. (No science, except math perhaps, is perfect.)
Far from being impartial, social psychology has produced a number of groundbreaking psychological theories, like the FAE. Here are some studies you might read:
- On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error.
- How fundamental is the fundamental attribution error?
- A fundamental attribution error? Rethinking cognitive distortions.
- The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research.
- From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey
- Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency for people to exaggerate personal characteristics while ignoring situational influences when judging the actions of others.
- FAE is the readiness to treat ourselves with leniency but hold others fully accountable for their actions.
- As a rule, it involves forming impressions of a person’s character based on limited information about them.
- It is an unjust error of thinking that people often make in professional settings. The FAE can have a hand in how we deal with others at our workplace and make some of our key business decisions. Within organizations, this bias is often the root of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, leading to heated arguments and unnecessary disruptions.
- The commonest example is branding an employee “lazy” and “unreliable” when they are late a few times. We even hold them as “dishonest worker” who is a “disgrace to the company culture” when they explain the cause of their running late as an unavoidable situational factor.
- FAE is deeply rooted in human psychology and we cannot overcome it entirely. The best way to avoid making this error is to see others’ actions with empathy, kindness, acceptance, and self-regulation.
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 stories patiently.
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.”
• • •
- How a confirmation bias could ruin your business?
- How Long Does Brain Fog Last & How To Clear It Quickly?
- 13 Deadly Cognitive Biases (Or Why You Make Bad Decisions)
• • •
Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy. His expertise is in mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoic philosophy.
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