fundamental-attribution-error

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.

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.

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.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

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

Systems Thinking

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
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.

Maslow’s Hammer

einstellung-effect
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

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

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.

Streisand Effect

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.

Heuristic

heuristic
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

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

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

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.

Biases

biases
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.

Bundling Bias

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

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.

First-Principles Thinking

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

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.

Six Thinking Hats Model

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.

Second-Order Thinking

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
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
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

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

occams-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.

Mandela Effect

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

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

Bandwagon Effect

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.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: HeuristicsBiases.

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