The Fundamental Attribution Error

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If you live and breathe, chances are you’ve fallen victim to the fundamental attribution error. I know I have. Often.

As described at wiseGEEK, the fundamental attribution error involves “placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone's behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors.” In other words, when someone else experiences a mishap, we tend to attribute it to that person’s character or personality. Yet, when we experience a mishap, we attribute it to the circumstances or situation.

Tom Stafford, coauthor of Mind Hacks: Tips and Tools for Using Your Brain, offers a simple example: When his wife can’t find her keys, he assumes it’s because she’s careless. But when he can’t find his keys, he attributes it to bad luck. Yet, invariably (and amusingly), she always assumes the opposite—that she’s the one with the bad luck and he’s the careless one.

Dan Heath, writing in Fast Company, offers an example of how our tendency to attribute the behavior of others to their character can potentially have dire circumstances. A manager’s performance review indicated that employees felt she didn’t listen to them when they came to her office. Her solution? She rearranged her office so as to give her employees her full attention and avoid being distracted by email. At the next performance review, her ratings soared. The problem wasn’t her personality; it was her environment.

Heath suggests that if HR had seen her earlier performance reports, they might have concluded that she lacked empathy and wasn’t cut out for management. Most HR people I know wouldn’t be quite so quick to jump to this conclusion. Still, Heath’s example suggests that to avoid making a serious mistake, we’d be wise to consider situational factors before finding fault with others.

Or, at least to try to, since it’s not so easy. According to changingminds, Western culture exacerbates the fundamental attribution error by emphasizing individual freedom and autonomy. We’re socialized to prefer dispositional factors—character or personality—to situational ones.

Wikipedia suggests that to avoid making this error in assessing others’ behavior:

      • Be aware of "consensus" information. If most people behave the same way when put in the same situation, then the situation is more likely to be the cause of the behavior.
      • Ask yourself how you would behave in the same situation.
      • Look for unseen causes that might account for the behavior you’ve observed.

And, to protect yourself from others who fall victim to the error, changingminds recommends that you notice when people blame you for things that are outside your control. But, also pay attention to the opposite: If people don’t blame you when you might expect them to, be curious about their motives.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.