People can be funny, especially as this applies to what the field of psychology has taught us about how we make attributions. One cognitive attribution bias we regularly fall victim to is known as the fundamental attribution error, where we have a tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character or personality, while attributing our own behavior to external situational factors outside beyond our control. On the surface this attribution error may seem harmless, but making the fundamental attribution error can actually lead to a distorted impression of others, and a lot of denial about ourselves.
Understanding the impact of the fundamental attribution error
Before examining the long-term consequences of falling victim to the fundamental attribution error, it is important to understand what it is, as well as learn real-life examples of where it is experienced. First, the key to the fundamental attribution error is that when we judge others, we often look at their behaviors through the lens of stable, dispositional factors (i.e. their personality, beliefs, and motivations). For example, if we see a student struggling in school, we might quickly assume the child simply isn’t very smart (dispositional), instead of looking more closely and possibly learning that the child’s low grades have little to do with his personality, and everything to do with his living situation that lacks appropriate adult oversight, encouragement, and support.
When we gauge ourselves, however, we make very different (and more excuse-driven) attributions — for example, if we are suffering in school we don’t usually think of our own lacking personal motivation, but instead place blame on bad teachers, poor textbooks, and inadequate learning environments (situational variables). With others we view their shortcomings as personality flaws, but when judging ourselves we usually look past our personality for other, situational factors to blame. Below are a few more examples to help make the point:
- When you are late to work you might blame slow traffic, but with another employee who is late you instead see him as lazy and irresponsible.
- When someone cuts you off in traffic you rarely stop to think that the driver may be in an emergency, but instead simply write the driver off as a jerk. When we race past someone and do the same thing, we justify our actions as being necessary since we need to be somewhere (and not because we are a jerk!).
- When you see a child on your kid’s team make an error you write off the kid as simply not talented, but when your kid makes a mistake you chalk it up to bad weather, poor coaching, or simply a tough day.
While the fundamental attribution error might sometimes be funny, there are also very real implications when we make erroneous attributions — both about others and ourselves. When we minimize situational factors we place too much of an assumption toward a person’s general makeup (i.e. “he’s lazy!”). In these examples, we need to be as gracious to others as we are ourselves and take into account life factors that often get in the way (i.e. heavy traffic, lacking resources, etc.). Similarly, sometimes we need to pump the breaks when we look at our own success and assume it’s due entirely to our amazing genetics, when in reality our own success could be a product of money, resources, and really encouraging and supportive team members. When we make attribution mistakes of this magnitude, we improperly assign values to others that are invalid, and we prop our own success up on flimsy, ego-driven fiction rather than reality.
While it is easy to make the fundamental attribution error, it is important that we take situational variable into account whenever judging others — or ourselves. Similarly, it is important to refrain from making broad, global, personality-judgements about others without first understanding what factors influenced the outcomes they experienced? Yes, it is not easy to acknowledge when some of our success is a product of the environment and not our own personal fortitude, nor is it easy to recognize that environmental factors can negatively impact the success of others, and that it’s not entirely their disposition alone. When we make accurate attributions, only then can we judge others and ourselves more fairly, and draw conclusions based more on reality than ego-preservation.