The Fundamental Attribution Error - We're all Making It and How We Can Stop
Updated: Sep 27
Have you ever heard of The Fundamental Attribution Error? Maybe you have; but if you haven't heard of that specific term, you will quickly understand what it is, and probably realize how often you make this error yourself. Basically this is when we attribute OUR OWN behavior to our SITUATION, and we attribute OTHER'S behavior to their PERSONALITY. You can also think of it as not giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Let's examine a couple of examples where this is easily illustrated.
I am driving to the grocery store the other day when this total JERK comes right up behind me and then passes me going at least 15-20 mph over the speed limit. I'm totally ticked off - who does this guy think he is? How rude of him to get upright on my a$$ then pass me going so fast? I can't believe this guy! How reckless! He must not have any regard for people's safety - or his own.
See what I did there? I attributed this guy's behavior to his personality.
Two days later I'm driving to a meeting and I am running so late. I am about to meet a new client and I really don't want to make a bad impression; so I am speeding. I could even get fired if I don't land this client. It seems like everyone is driving so slow. People need to get out of my way. Move - Move - Move!!! I've got to get to my meeting! I keep passing everyone that I can and I know I'm going really fast, but I HAVE to get to this meeting.
And see what I did here? I attributed my own behavior to my situation.
Isn't this exactly what we all do? When it is OUR behavior we attribute that behavior to the situation - we excuse that behavior based on the situation we are in. It's okay that I was speeding because I had to get to that meeting; I don't want to lose my job. What about that time I was rude to the cashier - it was okay because I just got in trouble with my boss. Then there was that time last week when I snapped at my husband out of nowhere - that was okay because I was so stressed out. We can attribute our behavior to our situation - we don't tend to say that I was speeding to my meeting because I'm a jerk. But when the behavior is attributed to someone else, we do not allow them the same situational excuse, do we? We tend to jump to attribute their behavior to their personality or their character. They must be speeding because they are reckless. They were rude to the cashier because they are a "Karen". When my husband snaps at me he is just being cruel.
See where I'm going here?
So what can we do about this? For so many of us, myself included, this reaction comes so quickly we usually don't even recognize it or stop ourselves from making the attribution. But now that you are aware of this error, there is an exercise you can do to help correct this behavior. When you find yourself making these kinds of snap judgments, force yourself to come up with two alternate reasons for the other person's behavior. Let's go back to the speeding example. The "jerk" speeds past me and my immediate reaction is "what a jerk". I recognize that I have just attributed his behavior to what I think his personality is. Now I need to come up with two alternate reasons for his behavior. (1) Possibly he is late for a meeting and will get fired if he doesn't get there in time. (2) Maybe he has diarrhea. We've all been there!
This exercise is something you have to train yourself to do and do over and over and over again. It will take a lot of practice for this to come more naturally to you. We've all heard the quote "You can't control other people, you can only control your reaction to them". This is a perfect exercise to help you do that. When you train yourself to think differently about people, you will also start to react differently to them.