Cognitive Psychology

Fundamental Attribution Error: Definition, Causes, and How to Avoid It

(Last Updated On: January 4, 2023)

Everyone makes judgments about other people. But how we make those judgments are prone to bias and error, and these problems can lead to inaccurate decisions and create problems in relationships. One such problem is known as the fundamental attribution error.

What Is the Fundamental Attribution Error?

A fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a type of cognitive bias that involves how we judge ourselves versus how we judge others. It involves people attributing other people’s behaviors to their personalities. What it fails to account for, however, is the role of situational influences.

At the same time, people tend to attribute their own actions to outside forces. Essentially, this bias leads people to blame others for their own misfortunes, while avoiding personal responsibility for their own circumstances.

Knowing how fundamental attribution works and influences your thinking can give you a clearer understanding of how this bias can affect how you evaluate other people’s behaviors. 

Fundamental Attribution Error vs. Correspondence Bias

The fundamental attribution error is sometimes confused with correspondence bias. In fact, the two terms were once used interchangeably, but more recent findings indicate that they are two distinct phenomenons. 

While the fundamental attribution error involves neglecting the situation when making evaluations, the correspondence bias involves the assumption that a person’s behavior corresponds to their personality. 

While the two concepts are related, they focus on different aspects of how we make attributions about behavior.

Examples of Fundamental Attribution Errors

While the fundamental attribution error is something that might be easier to spot when others are doing it, the reality is that it is something that everyone does to a certain extent. Some examples that you may relate to include:

  • Blaming someone’s poor performance review at work on their “laziness,” while attributing your own less-than-stellar review to the manager’s bias against you.
  • Attributing a child’s public tantrum to poor parenting, but blaming hunger or tiredness when your own child misbehaves.
  • Accusing your partner of not caring about your relationship because they were late for your date, without considering the fact that they were stuck in traffic.

You can probably think of numerous other examples of when this happens to you and others in daily life. When someone cuts you off in traffic, you might blame their poor driving skills instead of the fact that they are rushing to the hospital. 

The tendency for people to blame the victim of crimes or accidents by not taking steps to prevent the event is also an example of a fundamental attribution error. Instead of recognizing the role of the situation and the actions of others, people place all of the blame on the victims.

In each of these examples, other people’s actions are blamed on their internal characteristics without accounting for external factors.

History of the Fundamental Attribution Error

The term was first introduced in a 1977 study published by researchers Jones and Harris. Later, it became a fundamental concept in the field of social psychology and helps to describe some of the attributions that people make about their own and other people’s behaviors.

In Jones and Harris’s experiment, they proposed that people would attribute chosen behaviors to personality and random behaviors to the situation. However, what they discovered was that the fundamental attribution error influenced how people attributed these behaviors. 

In the study, participants listened to speakers give speeches either in suppor or opposition to Fidel Castro. Participants rated the pro-Castro speeches as being due to the speaker’s affinity for Castro. However, even when they were informed that the speaker’s stance was determined by a random coin flip, they still attributed the speaker’s position to their underlying disposition.

What Causes Fundamental Attribution Error?

This type of attribution error is very prevalent. It is particularly common in individualistic cultures where the emphasis is placed on the individual group rather than considering the influence of the collective group.

But why does it happen? Most people understand that situations influence behavior. When it comes to the fundamental attribution error, the problem is that people do not apply this information properly, particularly when it comes to interpreting the behaviors of others.

Perception

The fundamental attribution error happens because we lack information about the internal states of other people. Because we don’t have easy access to the other person’s emotions, thoughts, memories, and experiences, we make judgments based on our assumptions. We cut ourselves slack because we have a clearer picture of the different variables that contribute to behavior, including aspects of the situation and external forces.

In other cases, we don’t take the situation into account because we simply are not aware of it. Because we lack all of the details, we make assumptions based on the information that we do have.

Instead of looking for external motivations for behavior, we make quick attributions based on assumptions about the other person’s personality and character. Unfortunately, judging others through this lens misses the whole picture.

Heuristics

One reason cognitive biases happen is because of heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that help people interpret the world while making the most of their limited cognitive resources. 

Explaining a person’s behavior requires us to first figure out what they’re doing. Next, we need to determine what it says about their disposition. Finally, we take into account the aspect of the situation that might play a role (situational correction. 

Research suggests that the first two steps of this process happen almost automatically. However, accounting for the situation is a more deliberate process that requires more cognitive resources. If people don’t have the time or resources to make this effort, they are going to instead rely on their snap judgments.

Factors That Influence the Fundamental Attribution Error

Sometimes we are more likely to make this error when judging others. Factors that can increase the risk of making this mistake include:

  • What we know about the situation: The less situational information we have, the more likely we are to attribute the behavior to personality.
  • How well we know the person: If we know the person very well, we are more likely to consider the situation.
  • Our mood: People who are in a good mood are more likely to make fundamental attribution errors than people who are in bad or depressed moods. People experiencing negative moods tend to be more careful about observing and processing situational information, which means they are more likely to consider these factors when making judgments.
  • Intention: Sometimes we intentionally ignore the situation when making judgments. This is particularly true if we think the behavior stands out or if we think it is highly representative of the person’s overall character.

Effects of the Fundamental Attribution Error

This cognitive error can lead to a range of effects in different areas of life. Because we often unfairly assume that people do things because of dispositional factors and not because of external forces, we often make unfair judgments. We assume that their actions are a reflection of their character without considering other possible explanations.

This can lead to:

  • Poor social evaluations: We might discount or undervalue people based on a single action without looking at the whole picture.
  • Interpersonal conflict: When we unfairly judge other people, it can lead to conflicts, arguments, and resentments.
  • Decreased prosocial behavior: If we blame others for their plight, it might mean that we are less willing to extend a hand to help them.
  • Social consequences: The fundamental attribution error can also have far-reaching societal implications. If we attribute behaviors to the individual without considering the situational and systemic forces that contributed to those problems, it leads to long-lasting consequences without social policies to enact effective solutions.

How to Avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is common and can be difficult to avoid altogether. As a cognitive bias, it is caused by the way our brain’s work and the way that we perceive social situations. However, there are steps that you can take to help minimize it. 

Practice empathy: Try putting yourself in someone else’s position. What might they be experiencing? How would you feel if you were in their place? Practicing empathy can not only help you overcome the fundamental attribution error, it can also help increase compassion and prosocial behavior.

Build your emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand, manage, and communicate with emotions. Building this skill can help you make better evaluations about other people’s feelings and behaviors.

Focus on gratitude: Instead of becoming fixated on a person’s failures or negative characteristics, try to focus on things that you like and appreciate about them. Being grateful for their positive traits can help you see them more fully and not focus on a single “bad” quality when making judgments.

Think positively: Remind yourself that everyone has both good and bad moments. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt and focus on the positive instead of making negative assumptions about them. What you see might only be a small sample of a person’s overall character, and there is a chance they might just be having a bad day.

Summary

The fundamental attribution error is a key idea in social psychology that explain how people attribute others’ actions to internal characteristics and ignore situational variables. It can have a powerful effect on social evaluations and relationships, but there are steps you can take to minimize its effects. Practing empathy and improving emotional intelligence skills can be helpful.

APA Format References:

Forgas, J. P. (1998). On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 318–331. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.2.318

Gawronski, B. (2004). Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 183-217. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463280440000026

Gawronski, B. (2007). Correspondence bias. In R. F. Baumeister, & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology (pp. 194-195). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), 21-38. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21

Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The Attribution of Attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0