Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Concept OverviewThe Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), also known as the Correspondence Bias, is a cognitive bias in psychology that describes the tendency of individuals to attribute the actions or behaviors of others to internal, dispositional factors while underestimating the influence of external, situational factors. In other words, people often attribute the behavior of others to their character or personality traits, even when there are clear situational factors that could explain the behavior. FAE was first introduced by social psychologist Edward E. Jones in 1977. Understanding this bias helps explain how people perceive and judge the actions of others.
Key PrincipleThe key principle of the Fundamental Attribution Error is that individuals tend to overemphasize personality traits or internal characteristics when explaining the behavior of others, often neglecting the impact of external circumstances or situational factors. This cognitive bias can lead to inaccurate judgments and misunderstandings in interpersonal interactions.
ExamplesExamples of the Fundamental Attribution Error include:
1. Traffic Behavior: Assuming that a driver who cuts you off in traffic is a rude or aggressive person, rather than considering the possibility of an emergency or distraction.
2. Workplace Conflict: Believing that a coworker’s occasional tardiness reflects a lazy personality, without considering their challenging commute or family obligations.
3. Sportsmanship: Attributing a soccer player’s missed goal to lack of skill rather than considering the difficult weather conditions during the game.
4. Exam Performance: Assuming that a classmate who performs poorly on an exam is not intelligent, without considering their stressful personal circumstances.
ApplicationsUnderstanding the Fundamental Attribution Error has applications in various areas:
1. Social Psychology: It is a fundamental concept in social psychology and helps researchers study how people perceive and judge others in various situations.
2. Communication: It highlights the importance of clear communication to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments.
3. Conflict Resolution: It underscores the need to consider situational factors when addressing conflicts or disagreements.
4. Leadership and Management: Leaders and managers can benefit from recognizing this bias to make fair assessments of employee performance.

Understanding fundamental attribution errors

Fundamental attribution error – sometimes referred to as the attribution effect or correspondence bias – is a bias that was first described by social psychologist Lee Ross in 1977.

Research on the topic started much earlier, however, thanks to psychologists Fritz Heider and Gustav Ichheiser who investigated ordinary peoples’ understanding of the causes of human behavior.

In a nutshell, fundamental attribution error describes how people over-emphasize dispositional factors and downplay or ignore situational factors when judging someone’s behaviors.

Put in more simple terms, the individual believes that someone else’s personality traits are more of an influence on their actions than factors over which the person has no control.

Suppose someone is late for a meeting. Many of us may jump to the conclusion that the individual is constantly late to important events or does not take their job seriously.

We do not consider that the person could have been stuck in traffic or was required to collect a sick child from school on the way.

Conversely, when we are the ones late to a meeting, we use the excuse of being stuck in traffic and ignore what our late attendance says about us as a person.

Here, fundamental attribution error describes a double standard where we judge others harshly but do not hold our own behavior to the same account.

What is attribution?

The term attribution simply refers to how someone explains the behavior of another person.

In other words, what we attribute their behavior to. The fundamental attribution error occurs when the individual connects the cause of an individual’s action with the incorrect attribution. 

There are two types to choose from:

Dispositional attribution

Where someone’s actions are explained by their beliefs, opinions, personality, or any other inherent characteristic.

For example: Tom is always late to work because he is disorganized.

Situational attribution

Where someone’s actions are explained by their circumstances, environment, or even other people.

For example: Claire lost her temper with another staff member at lunch because she just walked out of a less-than-complimentary performance review.

Despite having only two options to choose from, most people will make the wrong choice and default to dispositional attribution when attempting to explain the actions of others. 

But why should this be so?

For one, humans are better able to reconcile someone else’s actions if they believe the person is bad in some way.

We also tend to default to dispositional attributes because it is easier than seeking out the real cause of someone’s behavior.

Avoiding fundamental attribution error

Avoiding fundamental attribution error entirely may be difficult, but here are a few ways we can at least reduce its impact:

Empathy and rationalization

While we can never be privy to the cause of all human behavior, we can at least default to empathy and take the stance that there is more to a person’s actions than meets the eye.

We may also rationalize their behavior by remembering how we acted in a similar situation and what caused us to do so.

Remain positive

It can also be helpful to remember that inherent to all people are good and bad traits and, even if someone’s actions are undesirable, they are not necessarily representative of their overall character.

Examples and Case Studies

  • Example of Positive Attribution Error: You see a colleague at work receiving praise and recognition for a successful project. You attribute their success to their exceptional skills, hard work, and intelligence (dispositional attribution), ignoring the fact that they had a supportive team, access to resources, and favorable circumstances (situational attribution) that contributed to the project’s success.
  • Example of Negative Attribution Error: You witness someone being rude and short-tempered with a cashier at a store. You immediately assume they are a rude and unpleasant person (dispositional attribution) without considering the possibility that they might be going through a stressful situation or having a bad day (situational attribution).
  • Example of Sports Attribution Error: During a soccer match, a player on the opposing team scores a goal against your favorite team. You attribute their success solely to their skill and talent (dispositional attribution), overlooking factors such as teamwork, positioning, and luck (situational attribution) that might have contributed to the goal.
  • Example of Academic Attribution Error: A student in your class consistently performs poorly in exams. You assume that they are lazy and not dedicated to their studies (dispositional attribution), without considering the possibility that they might be facing personal challenges or struggling with the material (situational attribution).
  • Example of Traffic Attribution Error: You are stuck in traffic, and you become frustrated with the slow-moving cars ahead of you. You think they are all terrible drivers (dispositional attribution), ignoring the possibility that there might be an accident or road construction causing the congestion (situational attribution).
  • Example of Relationship Attribution Error: In a romantic relationship, one partner is frequently late for dates. The other partner assumes they are inconsiderate and don’t value the relationship (dispositional attribution), without considering that they might have a busy schedule or face transportation difficulties (situational attribution).
  • Example of Job Interview Attribution Error: A job applicant performs poorly in an interview, stumbling over answers and appearing nervous. The interviewer assumes they lack the necessary skills and qualifications (dispositional attribution), without considering that they might be anxious due to the pressure of the interview (situational attribution).

Key takeaways

  • Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational explanations.
  • Despite having only two options to choose from, most people will default to dispositional attribution. This is because we like to believe someone is bad and often, it is easier and more convenient than discovering the real cause.
  • To avoid fundamental attribution errors, it is important to develop a mindset that is positive, empathic, and rational.

Key Highlights

  • Definition: The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias where people tend to overemphasize personal characteristics and downplay situational factors when explaining the behavior of others.
  • Origin: Social psychologist Lee Ross introduced the concept in 1977, building on earlier work by psychologists Fritz Heider and Gustav Ichheiser.
  • Bias Description: People tend to attribute behavior to dispositional factors (personality, beliefs) rather than situational factors (circumstances, environment).
  • Examples and Case Studies:
    • Positive Attribution Error: Attributing a colleague’s project success to their skills, while ignoring the support of a team and favorable circumstances.
    • Negative Attribution Error: Assuming someone is rude based on a single interaction, without considering external factors.
    • Sports Attribution Error: Attributing a soccer goal solely to a player’s skill, neglecting teamwork and luck.
    • Academic Attribution Error: Assuming a student’s poor performance is due to laziness, ignoring potential personal challenges.
    • Traffic Attribution Error: Blaming slow drivers in traffic, overlooking accidents or road construction causing congestion.
    • Relationship Attribution Error: Judging a partner as inconsiderate for being late, without considering their busy schedule.
    • Job Interview Attribution Error: Assuming an interviewee lacks skills due to nervousness, without acknowledging interview pressure.
  • Types of Attribution:
    • Dispositional Attribution: Explaining actions by inherent traits.
    • Situational Attribution: Explaining actions by circumstances or environment.
  • Default to Dispositional Attribution: People often default to dispositional attribution because it’s easier and allows them to reconcile behavior if they believe someone is bad.
  • Avoiding the Error:
    • Empathy and Rationalization: Default to empathy, considering that there’s more to someone’s actions than meets the eye. Reflect on personal experiences in similar situations.
    • Remain Positive: Remember that everyone has both good and bad traits, and actions may not fully define their character.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • Fundamental attribution error involves overemphasizing dispositional factors and underestimating situational factors when explaining behavior.
    • Most people default to dispositional attribution, possibly due to the human tendency to believe someone is “bad.”
    • To avoid the error, cultivate empathy, rationalize behavior, and maintain a positive perspective on individuals’ complexities.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).


Ergodicity is one of the most important concepts in statistics. Ergodicity is a mathematical concept suggesting that a point of a moving system will eventually visit all parts of the space the system moves in. On the opposite side, non-ergodic means that a system doesn’t visit all the possible parts, as there are absorbing barriers

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Metaphorical Thinking

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Google Effect

The Google effect is a tendency for individuals to forget information that is readily available through search engines. During the Google effect – sometimes called digital amnesia – individuals have an excessive reliance on digital information as a form of memory recall.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.

Compromise Effect

Single-attribute choices – such as choosing the apartment with the lowest rent – are relatively simple. However, most of the decisions consumers make are based on multiple attributes which complicate the decision-making process. The compromise effect states that a consumer is more likely to choose the middle option of a set of products over more extreme options.

Butterfly Effect

In business, the butterfly effect describes the phenomenon where the simplest actions yield the largest rewards. The butterfly effect was coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1960 and as a result, it is most often associated with weather in pop culture. Lorenz noted that the small action of a butterfly fluttering its wings had the potential to cause progressively larger actions resulting in a typhoon.

IKEA Effect

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that describes consumers’ tendency to value something more if they have made it themselves. That is why brands often use the IKEA effect to have customizations for final products, as they help the consumer relate to it more and therefore appending to it more value.

Ringelmann Effect 

Ringelmann Effect
The Ringelmann effect describes the tendency for individuals within a group to become less productive as the group size increases.

The Overview Effect

The overview effect is a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts when they look back at the Earth from space. The shift occurs because of the impressive visual spectacle of the Earth and tends to be characterized by a state of awe and increased self-transcendence.

House Money Effect

The house money effect was first described by researchers Richard Thaler and Eric Johnson in a 1990 study entitled Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice. The house money effect is a cognitive bias where investors take higher risks on reinvested capital than they would on an initial investment.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to rely on an initial piece of information (the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments or decisions. Price anchoring, then, is the process of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making a buying decision.

Decoy Effect

The decoy effect is a psychological phenomenon where inferior – or decoy – options influence consumer preferences. Businesses use the decoy effect to nudge potential customers toward the desired target product. The decoy effect is staged by placing a competitor product and a decoy product, which is primarily used to nudge the customer toward the target product.

Commitment Bias

Commitment bias describes the tendency of an individual to remain committed to past behaviors – even if they result in undesirable outcomes. The bias is particularly pronounced when such behaviors are performed publicly. Commitment bias is also known as escalation of commitment.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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