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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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