Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to assume that a person’s poor actions are entirely defined by his characteristics and not by situational or external factors.
Recall the time when someone cut you off in traffic. What did you think of the driver? “He is a selfish jerk who has no ethics. I’m sure that’s how he drives all the time,” you assumed. Neither had you met the person before nor knew his characteristics. Yet, you formed an impression within a snap of fingers.
Now, try to remember a situation when you cut someone off while driving. If I asked you why did you do that, you’d have a reason. Perhaps you had an urgent meeting to attend or pick up your son who had injured himself at karate class. You believe what you did was justified.
Did you notice how you had two opposite opinions of the same event? The only difference was who committed the mistake. That’s what fundamental attribution error is.
- What is the fundamental attribution error?
- Real-life examples of the fundamental attribution error:
- How to avoid fundamental attribution error
- Research and experiments:
- The reasons for FAE
What is the fundamental attribution error?
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to assume that other people perform poor actions because of their personality, not due to valid reasons. You ignore all situational factors or genuine reasons which might have played a part. In simple words, you think people do bad things because they’re bad people.
But when you do the same mistake, you have a reason to explain your action based on the actor observer bias.
As per social psychology, this cognitive bias is also called correspondence bias or attribution effect. For simplicity, it is referred to with the abbreviation FAE for short too.
Real-life examples of the fundamental attribution error:
You’ll notice yourself exhibiting such judgemental behavior in different situations. Instead of going through exact examples from real life, I will present scenarios to help you spot the problem in yourself.
1. In workplace or college:
At your organization, college or school, you like some people more than others. Therefore, you consider specific people at work incompetent due to your own reasoning. You might not discuss that with others, but within your head, you’ll have a bad impression of some person or the other. Let’s call the person you dislike Samantha.
Now, if Samantha shows up late for an important event, what thoughts run through your mind? “She’s so careless. I wish she at least showed more responsibility during crucial situations,” you mutter.
Maybe her family member was not keeping well or her car broke down? Nope, she’s late because she’s sloppy, right?
2. Between friends:
Not all your friends mean the same to you. You meet with a small circle, catch up with a few others occasionally and see the majority during major events like weddings. Among such friends, you will have certain people whom you despise hanging out with but yet have to because they’re close to another person. Let’s call the person you’d prefer avoiding, Nancy.
When you’re throwing your birthday party, you decide to invite Nancy because of a mutual friend. After the event, you realize that she did not show up. You assume Nancy stayed away intentionally.
In reality, she might have had to attend a close friend’s wedding or drop her husband at the airport. Since you two aren’t close enough, she might have not felt the need to inform you. Yet, your resentment convinces you that she had negative intentions.
Such thoughts can not only sprout between friends, but also in other personal relationships.
3. Bad incidents with lesser-known people:
Let’s call a person whom you see often, but barely know Benjamin. You run into him at parties and occasions, but you have never spoken to him. Benjamin drives expensive cars and wears glittering watches.
One day you hear that the cops arrested him. “He had it coming. I’m sure he was involved in illegal activities. Drugs or smuggling, maybe?”, you tell your friend. You do not consider the possibility that he made money fair and square and somebody framed him.
Your mind comes up with similar thoughts when a girl whom you consider flirty gets into trouble with a guy. “Oh, she was asking for it”, you shrug. You have no proof to back your statement and you overlook the possibility that she was innocent.
How to avoid fundamental attribution error
Once you develop awareness about such negative thoughts, guiding yourself to overrule your mind becomes easier. That said, since you and I stick to our beliefs as human beings, it can get tricky to combat the problem too. Here are 3 tips to help you battle such thoughts.
1. Guess a genuine reason:
When you find yourself judging a person based on characteristics, force yourself to find a genuine reason for the action. For example, if a coworker arrived late to a meeting, what do you think will justify the delay? You can think of an unexpected roadblock or the car breaking down. Now ask yourself if that could explain your colleague’s late arrival?
When you try to think of a scenario that can explain the action, you’ll find the negative thoughts in your head evaporating.
2. Think of the good qualities
FAE stems from your impression of the person than the real characteristics of the person itself. So if your opinion about the person is negative, you’ll attribute bad intentions to his actions. When you find yourself thinking on those lines, recall the good qualities of the same person.
This tip works when you know the person well enough. The positive attributes of the person can help you change your opinion because your mind realizes, “OK, he isn’t such a bad person after all”.
3. Benefit of the doubt
For the first occurrence of the mistake, giving a benefit of the doubt serves best for you and the other person. If your coworker did not invite you to the first party at her place, convince yourself that it was due to her poor memory.
If you retaliate by excluding her from your outings, you’ll make things rough for the both of you. Instead, if you truly believe she forgot to invite you, your rapport remains unaffected.
But, do not be naive to give a benefit of the doubt for every occasion. If your coworker has failed to invite you multiple times, you must consider other angles to her actions.
Also, consider the consequences of your inaction. For example, if you spot a significant financial anomaly in your organization’s accounting hinting a possible fraud, do not assume that the coworker committed a mistake due to negligence. Probe all possibilities to ensure your positive assumptions do not lead to unmanageable consequences.
Research and experiments:
Jones and Harris performed an experiment in 1967 where subjects read essays written about Fidel Castro. Each article was either for or against Castro.
Next, they had to rate if the writer had a positive or negative attitude towards Castro. Researchers noticed that subjects gave their vote based on the content of the article. Those who read positive essays mentioned that the writer was pro-Castro and vice versa.
For another batch of people, the researchers told the subjects that the writers did not choose to write for or against the Cuban leader themselves. A coin toss decided if the author had to write pro or anti-Castro. Despite this information, subjects voted writers who wrote in favor of Castro to have a more positive attitude towards him on average.
The subjects did not accept situational factors as the reason behind the content and attributed it to the writer’s characteristics.
The reasons for FAE
Every situation, incident, and person is unique. Therefore, the reason behind the fundamental attribution error varies from case to case. Here are 3 major reasons why the negative reasons pop up in your mind first.
1. Point of observation:
When you’re the observer, you do not know enough details about the incident. Your mind always looks out for the easiest way to explain an action by default.
The quickest route to make that happen is to form an assumption based on your impression of the person. Since you’ve no clue about the external factors that played a role, you bank on your current knowledge about the person.
But when you’re performing the action yourself, you know exactly what situational circumstances led you to do what you did. Hence you blame external factors for your poor actions and the person’s characteristics when another person performs the same act.
2. Fair world fallacy:
We like to believe the world is fair. You would have heard the saying, “What goes around comes around” or the common belief in karma. When a person you consider bad faces a negative consequence, you like to believe he got what he deserved. It fits right into our world view that, we have complete control over our lives and external factors play little to no effect in the outcomes.
On the other side, finding a genuine reason to explain your poor action helps you convince yourself that it wasn’t your fault.
3. Lack of effort:
As explained earlier, the human mind will first try to find the easiest way to get a job done by default. When you lack complete information about the other person’s action, your brain can finish the thought by using your impression of the other person.
Considering external factors requires additional time and effort. Only when you deliberately think in that direction other possibilities come into the light. But since you do not have any incentive to make a further effort, you believe what first came to your mind.
What you think of each person is not only defined by his/her characteristics but also your thinking.
That’s why a person hated by one is idolized by another. Your assumptions about another person’s actions are governed by not only their attributes but also your impression about them.
Your brain does magnificent things by taking such mental shortcuts to make lightning-fast decisions. But unfortunately, that speed comes at the price of such cognitive biases as the fundamental attribution error.
With a repeated deliberate effort to consider all possibilities for an action, you’ll develop a habit of fighting this flaw of your brain. Next time you find your negative reasons for another person’s actions, remind yourself that external factors could have been the reason too. Will you?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.