Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution of error is our bias to assume that a person’s personality influences his behaviour much more than the environmental, social and situational factors. 

This effect can be simply described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are".


Why do we make this error?

Since we do not have a lot of information about the motivation behind a person’s behaviour, we automatically take the simplest available explanation. 

In most cases, it is assumed that they are doing something because they are that “kind” of a person. 

The most common example of this error could be seen in trials where it is one person’s word against the other. Let’s say that someone has been duped of $1000, in this case we are much more likely to blame the person who was duped. 

We often assume that he was deserving of it because of our perception of his “foolishness” or “carelessness” while completely ignoring the other situational and social factors of the case. 


Err Over Gender

This is also very prevalent in crimes between 2 members of opposite genders.

When a man is alleged to be the victim, people will default to blaming the victim by arguing that being a man he should not have been in that position. These are usually followed by attacks on the victim's character like accusing them of being weak or not being a good judge of character etc.

But we often do not pay attention to factors that might have led him to be in that situation.

This is equally true when the genders are reversed where people will often come up with arguments like “she was asking for it”, “she should not have been at the scene”, “why did she choose to argue with a man twice her size” etc. All the while completely ignoring social, situational or environmental factors that might have led to the incident. 


Dissonance with Sympathy

This false attribution happens primarily due to the dissonance we feel when we give sympathy to one party or blame the other. Depending on our own disposition, we might take a stance without considering the other facts of the case. 

We attribute chosen behaviour to personality and chance-driven behaviour to situational factors which is not always accurate. 


Workplace & Home

At the workplace, if a new intern makes a mistake, we might immediately point towards factors like him being inexperienced, careless or not being thorough enough. While we ignore factors like his workload, office ambience, incorrect instruction by the mentor etc.

The reverse of this bias is also true. Let’s say your spouse made you a surprise dinner, the automatic thing you might assume is that she is a caring person and hence she was thoughtful enough to make dinner for you. 

But you are ignoring aspects like maybe she wanted to avoid ordering food because you are on a tight budget or she heard about this new recipe from a coworker and wanted to try it out. 

The reason could be a different factor or combination of factors. The problem starts when we immediately associate the person’s choice as purely something that reflects their personality and not the environment the choice was made in.

Considering other factors rather than going with purely personality based assessment can help you make better decisions both at work and home.


So that’s fundamental attribution error. What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments below or reply back to this email. 

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