In order to understand Fundamental Attribution Error, you first need to understand what is meant by attribution. Attribution in psychology simply means attributing causation to behaviour.
When you observe a behaviour, you tend to look for reasons behind that behaviour. This ‘looking for reasons behind a behaviour’ is called the attribution process.
When we’re looking for reasons behind our own behaviour or the behaviour of others, we attribute causation to two factors- situation and disposition. Situational factors are environmental factors in which the behaviour occurs and dispositional factors are the internal traits of the person doing the behaviour (called an actor).
Situational vs Dispositional factors
When an actor does a behaviour in a social setting, you’ll either attribute their behaviour to their disposition (personality or ability) or their situation (environment or the target person to whom the behaviour is directed).
People attribute behaviour to situational factors when external reasons are more likely and to dispositional factors when external reasons are less likely.1
For instance, if a boss is angry at an employee who’s late, you’re unlikely to judge the boss as short-tempered. You attribute the anger to the employee’s tardiness. Conversely, if the boss behaves angrily with many people on many occasions, you’re likely to come to the conclusion that he’s short-tempered.
Fundamental Attribution Error
Fundamental Attribution Error means making an error in the attribution of causation to behaviour. It occurs when we attribute behaviour to dispositional factors but situational factors are more likely and when we attribute behaviour to situational factors but dispositional factors are more likely.
Although this is the basic meaning of Fundamental Attribution Error, it seems to occur in some specific ways. When people observe the behaviour of others, they tend to attribute their behaviour to dispositional factors. On the other hand, people tend to attribute their own behaviour to situational factors.
When others do something, that’s who they are. When I do something, my situation made me do it.
Of course, people don’t attribute their own behaviours to situational factors all the time. A lot depends on whether the outcome of behaviour is positive or negative. If it’s positive, people will take credit for it but if it’s negative, people will blame it on others or their environment.
This is known as the self-serving bias because, either way, the person is serving themselves by building/maintaining their own reputation or harming the reputation of others.
So we can understand the Fundamental Attribution Error as the following rule:
When others do something wrong, they’re to blame. When I do something wrong, my situation is to blame, not me.
Fundamental Attribution Error experiment
Modern understanding of the Fundamental Attribution Error is based on a study conducted in the late 1960s in which a group of students read essays about Fidel Castro, a political figure. These essays were written by other students who either praised Castro or wrote negatively about him.
When the readers were told that the writer had chosen the type of essay to write, positive or negative, the readers attributed this behaviour to disposition. If a writer had chosen to write an essay praising Castro, the readers inferred that the writer liked Castro. Similarly, when writers chose to derogate Castro, the readers inferred that they hated Castro.
What’s interesting is that the same effect was found when the readers were told that the writers were randomly selected to write either in favour of or against Castro. In this second scenario, the writers had no choice regarding the essay type, yet the readers inferred that those who praised Castro liked him and those who didn’t, hated him.
Thus, the experiment showed that people make erroneous attributions about the disposition of other people (likes Castro) based on their behaviour (wrote an essay praising Castro) even if that behaviour had a situational cause (was randomly asked to praise Castro).
Fundamental Attribution Error examples
When you don’t get a text from your partner you assume they’re ignoring you (disposition) instead of assuming that they might be busy (situation).
Someone driving behind you honks their car repeatedly. You infer that they’re an annoying person (disposition) instead of assuming they might be in a hurry to reach the hospital (situation).
When your parents don’t listen to your demands, you think they’re uncaring (disposition), instead of considering the possibility that your demands are unrealistic or harmful to you (situation).
What causes Fundamental Attribution Error?
There are several reasons why people commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. Let’s go over these reasons one by one:
1. Perception of behaviour
Fundamental Attribution Error arises from how we perceive our own behaviour and the behaviour of others differently. When we perceive the behaviour of others, we essentially see them moving while their environment seems to stay constant.
This makes them and their action the centre of our attention. We don’t attribute their behaviour to their environment because our attention is diverted away from the environment.
On the contrary, when we perceive our own behaviour, our internal state seems constant while the environment around us changes. Therefore, we focus on our environment and attribute our behaviour to the changes occurring in it.
2. Effective interaction
Fundamental Attribution Error allows people to gather as much information about others as possible. Knowing as much as we can about other people helps us to make predictions about their behaviour and interact with them effectively.
We’re biased to collect as much information about other people as possible, even if it leads to errors. Doing so helps us know who our friends are and who aren’t, who treat us well and who doesn’t.
Hence, we’re quick to attribute negative behaviour in others to their disposition. We consider them guilty unless we’re convinced otherwise. Over evolutionary time, the costs of making an erroneous inference about a person’s disposition were higher than the costs of making an erroneous inference about their situation.2
In other words, if someone cheats, it’s better to label them a cheater and expect them to behave in the same way in the future than to blame their unique situation. Blaming someone’s unique situation tells us nothing about that person and how they’re likely to behave in the future. So, we’re less inclined to do so.
Failing to label, derogate and punish a cheater will have more drastic future consequences for us than wrongly accusing them, where we have nothing to lose.
4. “People get what they deserve”
We’re inclined to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. This belief gives us a sense of security and control in a random and chaotic world. Believing that we’re responsible for what happens to us gives us a sense of relief that we have a say in what happens to us.
The self-help industry has long exploited this tendency in people. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to comfort ourselves by believing that we’re responsible for everything that happens to us. But it takes an ugly turn with Fundamental Attribution Error.
When some tragedy befalls on others, people tend to blame the victims for their tragedy. It’s not uncommon people to blame victims of accident, domestic violence and rape for what happened to them. People who blame the victims for their misfortunes think that by doing so they somehow become immune to those misfortunes.“We’re not like them, so that’ll never happen to us.”
The ‘people get what they deserve’ logic is often applied when sympathizing with the victims or blaming the real culprits leads to cognitive dissonance i.e. mental discomfort. It’s because providing sympathy or blaming the real culprit goes against what we already believe causing us to somehow rationalize the tragedy.
For example, if you voted for your government and your government came up with certain bad international policies, it’ll be hard for you to blame the government. Instead, you’ll say, “Those countries deserve these policies” to reduce your dissonance and re-affirm your faith in your government.
4. Cognitive laziness
Another reason for the Fundamental Attribution Error is that people tend to be cognitively lazy in the sense that they want to infer things from minimum available information.
When we observe the behaviour of others, we have little information about the actor’s situation. We don’t know what they’re going through or have been through so we attribute their behaviour to their personality.
In order to overcome the Fundamental Attribution Error, we need to gather more information about the situation of the actor. Of course, gathering more information about the actor’s situation requires more effort.
Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that when people have less motivation and energy for processing situational information, they commit the Fundamental Attribution Error to a greater degree.3
5. Spontaneous mentalization
When we observe the behaviour of others, we automatically assume that those behaviours are the products of their mental states. This is known as spontaneous mentalization.
We have this tendency because the mental states of people and the actions that they perform often correspond to each other. Therefore, we consider the actions of people reliable indicators of their mental states.
Mental states (such as attitudes and intentions) are not the same as dispositions in the sense that they’re more temporary. However, consistent mental states over time can be indicative of lasting dispositions. Research suggests that the process of spontaneous mentalization could be behind the tendency of people to attribute behaviour to dispositional rather than situational causes.4
Is it Situation or Disposition?
Human behaviour is the product of neither situation nor disposition alone. Rather, it is the product of the interaction between the two. Of course, there are some behaviours where situation plays a greater role and somewhere disposition plays a greater role.
If we are to understand human behaviour, we ought to think beyond this dichotomy because focusing on one is done at the peril of ignoring another, resulting in an incomplete and incoherent understanding.
Fundamental Attribution Error can be minimized, if not completely avoided, by remembering that situations have a key role to play in human behaviour.
- Jones, E. E., Davis, K. E., & Gergen, K. J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 302.
- Andrews, P. W. (2001). The psychology of social chess and the evolution of attribution mechanisms: Explaining the fundamental attribution error. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(1), 11-29.
- Gilbert, D. T. (1989). Thinking lightly about others: Automatic components of the social inference process. Unintended thought, 26, 481.
- Moran, J. M., Jolly, E., & Mitchell, J. P. (2014). Spontaneous mentalizing predicts the fundamental attribution error. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 26(3), 569-576.