Fundamental Attribution Error: Why We Judge Others Unfairly

Updated: Aug 21

Think about the last time you observed someone behave badly. Did you automatically make a judgement about their character or did you think about a time when you behaved badly? Science suggests we’re hardwired to judge others far more harshly than we judge ourselves.

Can you think of a time that you waited for someone who was late thinking “how rude!” or “he must think his time is more valuable than mine!”

Now think about the last time you were late for an appointment. What kind of excuse did you make? Traffic? An earlier meeting ran long? No parking spaces?

Let’s face it… we’re human. Things happen. But, when we fall short, we always have “reasons.” When others falls short, we instinctually perceive it as a faulty character trait. There is an emerging field of research that explores this duality of irrational perceptions we have of the world. Behavioral scientists refer to it as fundamental attribution error. Also known as correspondence bias, it’s the tendency to place greater emphasis on situational factors when considering own behavior while placing greater emphasis on character or intention when considering others’ behavior.

More simply, when others screw up, it’s because of who they are. When we screw up, it’s because of situational factors.

The term fundamental attribution error was coined by Lee Ross some years after the now-classic experiment by Jones and Harris back in 1967. Jones and Harris hypothesized that people would attribute freely-chosen behaviors to personality or character and apparently chance-directed behaviors to external factors or the current situation.

Jones and Harris asked participants to listen to pro- and anti-Fidel Castro speeches and then rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the speakers. When the subjects believed that the speakers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude toward Castro.

However, their hypothesis was confounded when participants were informed that the writers had been instructed to support Castro. They still credited the writers with innate pro-Castro feelings. In other words, the participants were unable to see the speakers as taking a position that was assigned to them; they attributed their positions to character or disposition.

What Causes Fundamental Attribution Error?

There are several theories about how the fundamental attribution error happens. One theory is the just world phenomenon. According to the just world phenomenon, people get what they deserve. We like to think that the world operates on fairness and attributing bad things that happen to people who are not in our “in group” to their personality or character satisfies our need to believe in justice. It reinforces the idea that our behavior leads to either good things or bad things.

For example, in one study when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed that person’s behavior or personality 65% of the time. But, when something bad happened to themselves, they blamed the situation or external factors much more often and only blamed their own behavior 44% of the time.

Another theory as to the cause of the fundamental attribution error is what we know vs what we see. When we pay attention to someone’s behavior, the person is the primary reference point. The external factors or the situation gets lost in the background. But when we examine our own behavior, we cannot help but incorporate experiences, emotions, or situational factors.

Imagine you saw someone storm out of a restaurant and kick the sidewalk sign, you might say what a jerk – that guy has an anger issue! But if you storm out of a restaurant and kick the sidewalk sign because you just learned you were out of a job because the restaurant was closing. Anyone would kick the sign in that situation. You attribute the kick to the situation.

We justify our behaviors as responses to experiences. But we don’t factor in the experiences of others when we judge their behavior. We judge only what we see – their actions.

Another theory is that when we try to understand other people’s intentions, we engage in mentalizing, or spontaneously processing the other person’s mental state. In one 2014 study, neuroscientists used fMRI to examine brain activity as participants read a series of stories that described a character’s ambiguous behavior in response to a specific social situation. Participants were then asked to determine whether the behavior was attributable to the character’s internal dispositions or to external situational factors. Neural regions consistently associated with mental state inference—especially, the medial prefrontal cortex—strongly predicted whether participants later attributed the behavior to character rather than circumstance.

The Ultimate Attribution Error: One Source of Prejudice

In 1979, social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew took the concept one step further when he coined the term “ultimate attribution error” to describe a combination of demonstrably false assumptions that observers from one socially defined group (the ingroup) often make regarding the behavior of certain people from a different socially defined group (the outgroup). When members of our group make a mistake or act badly it’s an anomaly – they were frustrated or provoked. When members of another group do so, it’s so typical of them.

Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure …They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved. – Lazlo Bock

The fundamental attribution error is so pervasive that I guarantee you will see it in action now that you know what it is.  It leads to unfair judgments of people - their performance, motivations, and intentions. Remember the fundamental attribution error the next time someone fails to deliver, makes a mistake, or appears insensitive. Will you make an unfair judgment about that person’s character? Or, will you consider that there may be situational factors you aren’t aware of?

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