There are a lot of different reasons why people lash out or perform bizarre behaviors. Maybe behavior stems from a person's personality. Or maybe outside influences had a more important role in how a person behaves. It’s normal, however, for your mind to automatically jump to the first conclusion. It’s a common error all of our minds make, called the Fundamental Attribution Error.
What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?
The Fundamental Attribution Error is a tendency to believe that another person's actions stem from their personality, rather than outside influences. Understanding this error could help you be more empathetic or rational when making judgments about others and their actions.
Different Types of Attribution Error
One fundamental theory in the world of social psychology is the attribution theory. The attribution theory says that humans try to attribute meaning to the behaviors and events that they observe or experience. You want to know why someone behaves in a certain way. You want to know why the woman on the bus rolled her eyes or why someone said “no” when you asked them out on a date. Maybe you also want to know why it rained or why certain Presidents were elected into office.
When it comes to human behavior, there are two umbrellas of attribution that could explain certain behaviors and actions. One is dispositional attribution. You could attribute someone’s behavior to their disposition or personality. For example, you could say that the woman on the bus rolled her eyes because she is a snobby or rude person.
That’s just one type of attribution.
The other type of attribution is situational attribution. You could attribute someone’s behavior to external factors, or the situation that they are placed in. For example, a person was speeding down the highway not because they were a bad driver, but because they were in an emergency situation. Or a person remained silent when you called out to them, not because they were shy, but because they had just read a sign that said they were in a “quiet zone.”
Realistically, either type of attribution could be correct. We have all been in situations where we have acted “out of character” due to a bad day, advice we had been given, or a previous situation that instructed us on how to behave. But the fundamental attribution error often sways our thinking. We are more likely to lean toward dispositional attribution rather than situational attribution. We are more likely to think that someone’s behavior or actions has to do with their personality rather than their situation.
Examples of Fundamental Attribution Error
Interactions on the Bus
Let’s say you’re sitting on the bus and see that the woman in front of you has dropped her wallet. You pick up the wallet, tap her on the shoulder, and tell her that she dropped her wallet. Her response is to roll her eyes and snatch the wallet out of your hands.
What is your first thought? You might think yourself, “Whoa! How rude!” You might assume that the woman isn’t exactly the nicest person you’ve met on the bus.
Or, maybe you think that the woman was just having a bad day. Or she was preparing for a stressful presentation at work and your disruption broke her concentration. She might have been in a situation recently where she lost something important and was angry to see that her absent-mindedness could have cost her her wallet.
Cutting People Off in Traffic
A Reddit user offered this great example of fundamental attribution error:
"When you cut someone off in traffic, it’s because you were being absentminded or because you’re late to sing lullabies to your newborn, right? But when someone cuts YOU off, it’s because they’re a jerk. You don’t know their inner thoughts, just the result of their actions in the world."
Who Discovered Fundamental Attribution Error?
The term “fundamental attribution error” was coined after Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris’s classic experiment in 1967. Their experiment involved the psychologists giving participants an essay to read with either a pro-Fidel Castro argument or an anti-Fidel Castro argument.
Studies on Fundamental Attribution Error
The psychologists told one group of participants that the writer of the essay was given a choice as to which side to argue. Another group was told that the writer had no choice - they were assigned to either write a pro-Castro or anti-Castro essay. Then, the participants had to guess whether or not they believed the writer of the essay personally supported or didn’t support Castro.
Not surprisingly, the first group believed that the writer’s beliefs aligned with the essay that was written. If the writer chose to write a pro-Castro essay, they likely supported Castro themselves.
But they weren’t the only group with this logic. The group that was told the writer was assigned were still more likely to believe that the writer’s real sentiments lined up with their essay. Even though the writer was assigned to write an anti-Castro essay, the participants were still more likely to believe that the writer was anti-Castro.
Why Does Fundamental Attribution Error Happen?
True to the attribution theory, many psychologists have tried to find out why the fundamental attribution error is so common. There isn’t just one answer.
One possible explanation is that it’s easier to accept the dispositional attribution. Brains like shortcuts - after all, they have a lot of information to process at once. If the brain can find a way to make meaning in a shorter amount of time, they’ll take the opportunity. It’s easy to blame a person’s behavior on the person who is performing the behavior. It’s not as easy to blame a person’s behavior on external factors, which are infinite and often invisible.
Other theories suggest that culture plays into attribution. Westerners are brought up in an individualist rather than collectivist, culture. It’s more normal to attribute an individual’s actions to their behavior because in general, more responsibility is placed on the individual than the society as a whole.
How Does Fundamental Attribution Error Contribute to Prejudice?
It’s easy to say that a person is homeless because they are lazy. The person’s outer appearance may also justify that reasoning. Not so easy to blame the person’s homelessness on a series of events that may include a lack of education, systemic racism, lack of support for mentally disabled veterans, etc.
Not only is it hard to seek out these answers, it can be exhausting just to think about the possibilities within situational attribution. This often leads us to believe derogatory things about people who may be at a disadvantage in life. With years of media, leaders, and society telling us that people commit more crimes or have less money because they are not as smart or not as good-natured, we are likely to lean into and confirm fundamental attribution error when we could just be blind to outside influences.
In many cases, a person’s disposition can explain their behavior and actions. But this isn’t always the case. The next time you pass judgment on someone, think about the Fundamental Attribution Error. Did the person behave this way due to their personality, or due to external circumstances? Expanding your mind and letting these possibilities in could help you avoid making a wrong judgment or judging too quickly.