The Fundamental Attribution Error

Remember that guy you passed in the hall last week? You said good morning to him, and he growled something unintelligible at you and rushed on. Man, that guy was a jerk, huh?

To be fair, you kind of snapped at that intern who walked in your office yesterday. Right? Okay, but that was different. You were up against a deadline and your car had just broken down. You had a right to be irritated. You’re not a jerk, you just had a bad day. Happens to everyone.

See what happened there?

We explain other people’s behavior, especially strangers, in terms of what kind of person they are. We explain our own behavior in terms of what our reasons are.

This bias is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, and it’s one of the biggest mental mistakes we make as humans. A good understanding of this error can change your entire outlook on humanity.

Because really, aren’t there always reasons for bad behavior – and aren’t those reasons usually hidden?

If a student fails to understand something, is it really just because she’s stupid? Maybe she’s distracted because her dog got sick yesterday, or because she’s running to a party right after class. Maybe  she’s just not trying because her parents say girls are bad at this subject. Maybe she can’t read, and has been hiding it for years – or she’s clinically depressed – or her brain is fried after a full day of classes – or, or, or…

Reasons are not excuses, of course. If someone’s a jerk to you (or worse), you shouldn’t roll over and take it just because they have a reason. But understanding those reasons, or even guessing at them, can take you a long way toward humanizing other people.

This kind of thinking can be transformative. Suddenly, the lady who cuts you off in the parking lot might just be late for her son’s doctor appointment. The boss who yells at you might be struggling to cope with tremendous pressure from upper management. The literary agent who rejects you might (and probably does) think you’d have a real shot if you worked harder.

Understanding that people are shaped by their circumstances is the foundation of empathy, of forgiveness. It means looking at anyone, absolutely anyone, and thinking there but for the grace of God go I.

Who knew that cognitive psychology could be so liberating?

Tell me, have you ever had an “a-ha!” moment, where you realized what made someone act a certain way? Did it change the way you thought about them afterward?

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4 responses to “The Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. I’ve rarely heard a good reason. Whenever my friends are being snippy, they chalk it up to their ADD or ADHD. I understand that there are some people to whom it causes trouble… but, wow, do I hate it when people use it as a crutch to act out.

    I have had a few of those moment before, though. Sometimes it doesn’t even look that bad- but to them, it is. One friend of mine can get a bit… annoyed when she can’t run because of an twisted ankle or something. To me, that seems like nothing. But she’s an athlete, and an injury takes away, for however long she’s recuperating, what would be the equivalent of taking away my books.

  2. I always have tried to do this, without an actual name for it.
    However, I have a slightly different take on this. For example, in my Language arts class my teacher never teaches me anything new and tomorrow I have to go to an I.B. meeting for sophmores that has nothing to do with me.
    So instead of just hating her, instead I try to figure out why she’s doing this. Because I think in her own, unhelpful, way my teacher actually tries to help me. So she must actually think that the I.B. meeting isn’t a waste of time, or that the class will enjoy it. Even though I mentioned that I already understand a lot of what she’s teaching to us, she might have trouble taking me seriously because I’m thirteen. Or maybe she thinks that introducing it again will help me somehow.
    Interesting post.

    Also, just as a quick note to something I’m not sure I talked about during the fractals week, I would be up for doing more themed weeks instead of random posts. Maybe we could have 1 themed week a month and then have the rest of the month just be random posts like usual? That way everyone gets what they want.

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