We underestimate the impact of the situation and environment on an individual’s behaviour and overestimate the influence of personality-based dispositional factors.

What exactly is a Fundamental Attribution Error? Why does it matter?

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you go to a conference with your friend. And he introduces you to a colleague, Dr. X. You have heard about the exciting research that Dr. X is doing. You tried to interact with Dr. X, but Dr. X is particularly aloof. The chances are that your first reaction is that Dr. X is an unfriendly person or has ego issues, right?

What if Dr. X is having a really tough day? Perhaps he got yelled at by his principal investigator. Maybe, someone he knew passed away. Then you may think that Dr. X may not be a cold person. He is just having a difficult day. This mixed-up judgment is how fundamental attribution error works. People tend to pay more attention to internal explanations rather than considering circumstances.

Fundamental attribution error is the belief that leads to an under-emphasis of situational and environmental factors while overplaying an individual’s dispositional factors in their actions. In other words, we believe that whatever others do is because of who they are.

The term 'fundamental attribution error' was coined by Lee Ross, arguing the importance of this error in social psychology. Earlier research has shown differences in the way people think and fall prey to this bias. A classic study conducted in 1967 by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at Duke University highlighted how this effect might work and its consequences. They hypothesized that when individuals see others behaving of their free will, they are most likely to attribute it to disposition rather than the circumstances of chance. In the study, participants were made to listen to pro-and anti- Fidel Castro speeches and rate their attitude towards Castro based on the speech. Despite being told that the speeches for and against Castro are based on a coin flip, they still rated people who gave pro-Castro speeches with a positive attitude towards him. This shows that even when participants were made aware that the speech was only by chance and not by motivation, their judgments did not change. They committed a fundamental attribution error.

Similarly, we use mental shortcuts to get by daily. Fundamental attribution error serves as a heuristic to make lightning-fast judgments without exhausting much of our brain's cognitive resources and energy. It is far easier to assume that someone’s personality is the way you saw them without fully considering the environmental influences. This error can have long-lasting impacts as judgments are made based on limited information.

Avoiding this error

While we may know what is up with ourselves but know little to nothing about what’s going on with someone else, it is nice to give the benefit of the doubt until we see the whole picture. For this, we need to actively think of circumstances that may have caused such a reaction. To reduce the bias, examining the reasons may help identify the mental shortcuts which led to the conclusion that aligned with the bias. One effective way to debias is slowing down the reasoning process and using Hanlon’s razor. Practising emotional intelligence to self-regulate the judgements and improve objectivity is also recommended.

Fundamental attribution error affects our judgments more than we can imagine. Think about how you err.

Moreover, what does this effect tell us?

Don’t be too quick to judge!