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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