Fundamental attribution error

“I explain the actions of a person through their personal characteristics while underestimating the influence of the situation.”

Definition

Several factors influence a person's behaviour. We can place these different factors in two categories: the causes external to the person (the situation, the environment) and the internal causes (motivations, dispositions, personality). When we want to explain other people’s behaviour, we tend to believe that internal causes are more significant than external causes [1]. We will think that the behaviour of the person is explained by their personality, while underestimating the influence of the external factors which pushed them to act in this way. This bias is more present in Western cultures than in Eastern cultures [4].

Example

You are walking in the street, when suddenly, a man quickly passes by, jostling you. You are probably going to think this man is rude. However, it could also be that this man is late for work and needs to hurry, which could also explain his behaviour. You have therefore attributed an internal cause to the behaviour (he is rude) while underestimating potential external factors (he is late).

Explanation

Usually, our attention is on the most salient part of a situation. When we have to study the behaviour of others, the salient element is often the actor at the heart of the situation. Unlike internal causes, causes external to the actor are not readily available to us. Paying attention to the environment therefore requires more energy. Consequently, we will immediately conclude that the causes of the actions come from the actor [3]. The extent of this bias is determined by the motivation of the observer. If they are determined to have an unbiased judgment of the actor, the observer may try harder to take external factors into account, and their judgment will be less biased. This bias would also be influenced by our mood. Being in a bad mood can unconsciously be seen as a signal of impending danger. This is why a person in a bad mood tends to be more vigilant in handling information. They pay more attention to the environment, and tend to commit less fundamental attribution errors compared to someone in a good mood [5].


It can also be anxiety-provoking to attribute external (and therefore uncontrollable) causes to the behaviours of others. After all, if other people can act without a full control of their behaviour, it can happen to us too. By focusing on the internal causes of other people's behaviours, we maintain a sense of control and thus decrease our level of anxiety [3].

Consequences

While the fundamental attribution error has positive and neutral consequences (if the causes of behaviour are truly internal, our judgment will be appropriate), it also has important negative consequences. This bias is committed by everyone, several times a day, and it distorts our judgment and our understanding of others. It affects our relationships with others, since our behaviours are guided by our mistaken understanding of others [3].


We tend to see members of groups other than our own as homogeneous, meaning that we see them as all being similar. Thus, if we incorrectly judge a member of a group because of the fundamental attribution error, that mistaken judgment can generalize to all members of that group. This bias can therefore reinforce, or even create, stereotypes concerning groups and lead to prejudice and discrimination against their members [3]. The fundamental attribution error can therefore contribute to discrimination against members of minority groups.

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • It is important to challenge stereotypes and preconceived ideas about minority groups, because our judgment is often tainted by several biases, including the fundamental attribution error.

  • When we want to determine the causes of a person's actions, it is necessary to make an effort to examine the environment around them.

  • It would be important to learn about the workings and consequences of the fundamental attribution error. This would motivate oneself to pay more attention to one's initial judgments, and correct them if necessary.

How is this bias measured?

The traditional way of measuring this bias is to ask participants to describe the personality of a person that they observed. If participants describe personality traits corresponding to the action performed by the person (example: that person is clumsy), even when external causes are noticeable and could explain this behaviour, this may demonstrate a fundamental attribution error. It is possible that the causes of action really are internal, but underestimating the external factors demonstrates a fundamental attribution error.

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

This bias has social or individual repercussions:

This bias is empirically demonstrated:

References

[1] Lee Ross (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social.


[2] Edward E. Jones & Victor A. Harris (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1-24.

[3] Berry Zachariah & Joel Frederickson (2015). Explanations and implications of the fundamental attribution error: a review and proposal. The Journal of Integrated Social Sciences ISSN 1942-1052 : 46-57 (méta-analysis)


[4] Incheol Choi, Richard. E. Nisbett & Ara Norenzayan (1999). Causal attribution across cultures: Variation and universality. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 47-63


[5] Joseph P. Forgas (1998). On Being Happy and Mistaken: Mood Effects on the Fundamental Attribution Error. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No.2, 318-331

Tags

Individual level, Intergroup level, Interpersonal level, Availability heuristic, Representativeness heuristic, Need for cognitive closure, Need for security

Related biases

Author

Louison Gros, Psychology licence, Université Savoie-Mont-Blanc.

Translated from French to English by Cloé Gratton.

How to cite this entry

Gros, L. (2020). Fundamental attribution error, trans. C. Gratton. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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