100 Things You Should Know About People: #37 — People Assume It's You, Not The Situation

T shirt that says "Don't make the fundamental attribution error on me!"A man is walking down a busy city street on his way to an appointment, and he sees what looks like a college student drop a folder of papers. The papers scatter on the ground and the man glances over but keeps on walking. What do you think? Why didn’t the man stop to help with the papers?

If you answer “Well, he’s a self-absorbed person who doesn’t usually help out strangers on the street” then chances are likely that you have just made a “fundamental attribution” error. People have a tendency to give personality based explanations for other peoples behavior more weight than situational factors. Instead of explaining the person’s behavior in the story above as being due to his “self absorption”, you might ascribe his behavior to the situation, for example, “He’s late for a critical meeting with the bank and doesn’t have time to stop today. In other circumstances he would have stopped.”

Research on the fundamental attribution error shows the following:

  • In cultures that value individualistic behavior (like the USA),  it is common to ascribe behavior of other people to personality. The fundamental attribution error is common in these cultures.
  • On the other hand, in individualistic cultures people tend to explain their OWN behavior to situational factors more than personality factors.
  • In cultures that value collectivist behavior (for example, China), people make the same fundamental attribution error, but not as often as in individualist cultures
  • Most of the research has to do with individuals deciding on personality vs. situational effects, but some research has been done on group decisions and whether they are influenced in the same way. It seems that they are. People attribute the decisions of a other group to the individual member’s attitudes, but attribute the decisions of their own group to the collective group rules.

Why do we do this? — I think the best theory about why we make the fundamental attribution error is that when we believe that personality causes our behavior that makes us feel that we have more control over our life. And we (especially in the West) need to feel that we have that control.

Can’t stop making mistakes — The research shows that it is very hard to stop make the fundamental attribution error. Even when you know you are doing it, and even if you know all about it, you will still make the same error.

Is “fundamental attribution error” the same as “correspondence bias”? — Psychologists like to come up with lots of terms. Both terms have been used, and they are often used interchangeably. However, some psychologists argue that what I’ve been describing is actually the correspondence bias, and that the fundamental attribution error refers to the REASON for the correspondence bias: that we underestimate situational factors. Well, that sounds like hair splitting to me!

But maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a curmudgeonly psychology nut who doesn’t like to agree with people (ok, that was just me trying to make a joke by showing correspondence bias!).

So what’s the take-away? — Now that you know people tend to make this error, what can you do about it? Probably not much in terms of getting people to change their interpretations of others’ behaviors. But try and build in ways to cross-check your own biases. If your work requires you to make a lot of decisions about why people are doing what they are doing, you might want to stop before acting on your decisions and ask yourself, “Am I making a Fundamental Attribution Error?”

If you’d like some fairly heavy reading on the topic, I recommend:

Gawronski, Bertram. Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 2004, 15, 183–217.

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10 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #37 — People Assume It's You, Not The Situation”

  1. I agree. often in user centered design process it is tempting to stop after creating personas, because I feel that I have understood the users well enough. This article shows why identifying scenarios is also important.

  2. It’s an interesting observation but, I fail to understand how this behavior is of use in marketing and advertising…that is, what makes them click. How can this be used?

  3. I encounter this error all the time from observers of usability studies. When a new feature is overlooked or a participant has trouble using it, many observers will blame the participant (“Stupid user!”) rather than take a closer look at improving the interface.

  4. I can only speak from a Western world point of view but what I have always found interesting is that in an individualistic society, when person do a “good” thing, people attribute it to the individual, but when he does something wrong, people tend to blame society.

    1. Interesting point. I just found this article so I am truly sorry for your reply being over two years old and I am just now replying. I wanted to expound on your idea though. You mentioned “blaming society”. If you watch young children, no child has to be taught selfishness or rudeness. It is in society (family, friends, school, etc) where the child needs to learn manners, respect, discipline, and courtesy. The thing is, in public schools (and it is getting worse everyday), the children are taught in one class that their existence on this planet is the product of a colossus “oops” on a cosmic scale and that life in general is inherently meaningless. Then , they gather their belongings and go to the next class just down the hall where they’re “taught” self-worth, the importance of self-esteem and “the answers are within you”. So, what you have is a confused kid that is taught you don’t matter one minute, then taught the next just how much he/she does matter, but it’s all about self importance. So I ask…just how much is “society” to blame for this behavior?

  5. Interesting idea. I was a little unsure about how different collectivist and individualistic societies differ in frequency of the attribution error. I read it a few times. I thought this a fundamental aspect of the behaviour. Is it cultural or is it purely behavioural.

  6. @AJK: actually they don’t. It’s the other way around, as described in the article. One reason you might think so because of your own confirmation bias operating in conjunction with inflated representations of pop psychology in the media.

  7. I have been loving the 100 Things… posts, until this one. Why should feeling that our own behavior is influenced by the situation rather than our own personality make us feel more in control????

    Admittedly, my familiarity with the fundamental attribution error comes from reading the basics. (Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (1972) is on my desk right now.) I am less familiar with the recent work on culture. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute the cause of others’ behavior to something about them (e.g., personality). On the other hand, an individual with a healthy self-esteem tends to attribute their own positive behavior to something about him/herself and their own negative behavior (or negative outcomes) to situational influences. Some people will go more strongly with situational influences for both good and bad outcomes/behaviors. For instance, they may feel that they were lucky when something good happens to them, or unlucky when something bad happens to them. While attributions about their own person are influences by whether they have an internal or external locus of control, their attributions about others tend to be predominantly internal (the fundamental attribution error). In short, while our attributions about others are simple (or simplistic), our attributions about ourselves are complicated by other factors. Once upon a time, it was thought that our tendency to attribute others’ behavior to something about them was that our attention was focused on them rather than the environment around them (peripheral vision considerations aside). When we make attributions about our own behavior, we are looking around ourselves rather than in the mirror, so we are focused on the situation. You CAN reduce the tendency to make the fundamental attribution error by being mindful. Most often the suggestions are not put in terns of the fundamental attribution error,. Rather, it is suggested that when someone treats you badly, you should consider that perhaps they are having a bad day rather than that they intended to make your life difficult, and to cut them some slack, rather than cutting them to the quick.

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