You accidentally put your phone on silent and miss your alarm, spill coffee on your shirt and have to quickly change, and get stuck in traffic on your way to work.
By the time you arrive at your desk, you’re thirty minutes late. It’s not your fault — external factors disrupted your usual punctuality.
While you understand why you’re late, your manager or coworkers may be less willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. They may even write you off as unorganized and disengaged.
This is the fundamental attribution error, a common phenomenon of overestimating a person’s personality traits rather than uncontrollable external factors that guide their behavior. Learn to recognize this natural reaction to combat your snap judgments and build deeper relationships, more collaborative teams, and better communication.
What’s the fundamental attribution error?
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error is when people judge others’ behavior based on personality characteristics rather than external motivators beyond their control, even when situational factors guiding someone’s decision-making are clear.
The theory stems from a 1967 study by Edward Jones and Victor Harris published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They theorized that people have a correspondence bias in which they attribute freely chosen behavior to someone’s disposition and directed/controlled behavior to external factors.
To test their hypothesis, they gave a group of test subjects positive and negative articles about Fidel Castro. They asked the subjects to judge the pro-Castro writers’ attitudes and found the following results:
- When the organizers told subjects that writers freely chose their position on the controversial political leader, subjects believed that the pro-Castro writers had a positive attitude toward him.
- Surprisingly, when the organizers informed subjects that writers wrote their critiques based on a random coin toss, they still believed writers who wrote pro-Castro articles had positive attitudes about him.
This result disproved the authors’ hypothesis that people could differentiate between situational (external factors) and dispositional attributions.
Lee Ross refined this attribution theory in his 1977 paper, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings.” Ross found that people tend to judge their own behaviors through a self-serving bias based on uncontrollable external factors.
But they don’t give others the same benefit of the doubt, instead overestimating the importance of dispositional factors and personality characteristics in behavior and decision-making.
5 fundamental attribution error examples
Most people perceive the world around them from their point of view. While you’re likely in touch with your values, motivations, and the situational attributions that impact your day, it may be hard to put yourself in another person’s shoes and consider these factors to define their behavior.
You’ll find this bias — of assuming someone’s behavior stems from concrete personality traits rather than external factors — expressed in other biases that impede your judgment of others. Here are five examples, including a classic fundamental attribution error hypothetical.
1. Fundamental attribution error
Imagine you receive funding for a new product line from a first-time investor. You develop the product with extra care: market analysis helps guide development, positive feedback from beta testing proves you’re on the right track, and a strong marketing plan promises to introduce the product to the marketplace successfully.
But global supply chain issues throw off launch schedules and deplete the marketing budget. The product launches and barely breaks even on investment. The investor assumes you can’t build strong products and decides you’re too inexperienced to do business with.
2. Actor-observer bias
It’s common to feel overwhelmed on your first day at work. Although you also weren’t your normal self on your first day, you establish a cognitive bias when your new coworker appears flustered, timid, or even visibly annoyed.
Rather than attributing this teammate’s behavior to adjusting to a new work environment, you might assume timidness or a short temper are defining personality traits.
3. Self-serving bias
Imagine you work on digital strategy in a marketing department. The research process is full of inefficiencies, and information silos between marketing, sales, and operations cause disruptive miscommunications. Market research fails to uncover key opportunities, sales underperform, and employee morale decreases.
Your manager’s self-serving bias causes him to blame the problem on personality-based factors like poor decision-making, inexperience, and lack of work ethic rather than recognizing their inability to overcome leadership challenges.
4. Victim blaming and the just-world theory
Victim blaming is when people blame the victim of a trauma, tragedy, or injustice. In a work setting, when a person blames someone else for their own mistreatment, abuse, or assault, it’s a big red flag of a toxic work environment.
For example, imagine a sales team gives bonuses to top performers to incentivize stronger revenue. The manager and coworkers bully the lowest performers. According to the just-world theory, both top and bottom performers “get what they deserve.” Inherent character strengths and flaws justify one employee’s reward and another’s humiliation.
5. Cultural misunderstandings
Culture informs how you interpret others’ values and characteristics, which may lead you to misjudge someone whose behavior doesn’t align with your cultural upbringing.
Imagine a coworker from a culture where communication is straight to the point and shows of gratitude aren’t common. You may be quick to perceive them as rude or impersonal rather than give them the benefit of the doubt of having a different communication style.
Falling for the fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error is a type of heuristic, a decision-making process that’s part of the brain’s natural wiring. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that the brain uses to reach quick conclusions to solve complex problems and avoid mental fatigue. But in the process, you might overlook important information.
The reason you intuitively make judgments of people is because it’s easier. It’s simpler to attribute a person’s behavior to their outward character traits rather than consider all the challenges and external factors that affect their behavior.
Although your brain might naturally overestimate a person’s character or values, you can learn to adjust this mental habit. Taking a step back and considering what external factors might make you behave a certain way will help you empathize with others and form a more well-rounded view of who they are.
How to avoid the fundamental attribution error: 3 steps
Falling for the fundamental attribution error is a common social phenomenon. But snap judgments of coworkers can hinder strong teams, encourage toxic behaviors, and erode communication in the workplace, disrupting you and your organization’s goals.
Here are three ways to push past the fundamental attribution error to build stronger teams and healthier work environments:
1. Encourage relationship-building
You adjust your attribution process to be more sensitive to situational factors when you feel accountable for your impressions. And closer relationships with coworkers can make you feel more responsible for how you judge or treat them.
This also means you learn more about your coworkers to gain a well-rounded picture of their behavior, in turn combatting the fundamental attribution error.
2. Practice empathy
You aren’t the only human in the room. If you can contextualize your behavior and decision-making against a myriad of situational and dispositional factors, you can do the same for others.
Cognitive empathy is precisely this — the ability to rationally comprehend another person’s feelings and perspective. So the next time someone does something confusing, hurtful, or frustrating, put yourself in their shoes. Remember: we’re all humans with complicated lives and factors that cause us to make mistakes.
3. Be aware of your motivations
Taking responsibility for your failures can feel threatening. To avoid owning up to your actions and learning to change, you may form biases about others’ behavior to justify your own.
But learning from failure is a key to success since failing is inevitable but you’ll continue forward. And understanding how to recognize your self-serving biases can help you hone valuable soft skills like flexibility, humility, and resilience.
If you find yourself negatively judging someone or pushing blame in their direction, take a step back and ask yourself a few questions:
- How does my judgment of another person benefit me?
- What untoward behavior might I do in their situation?
- Am I taking responsibility for my own actions in this situation?
Benefits of avoiding the fundamental attribution error at work
Cohesive teams and open communication are an organization’s lifeline to healthy business and innovation. Here are a few benefits of avoiding the fundamental attribution error in your organization:
Discourages negative gossip: Making snap character judgments encourages workplace gossip. And negative gossip disrupts open discussion, strains trust and confidence in colleagues, and adversely impacts work quality and team morale.
Less conflict: Conflict often starts with miscommunication. Encouraging deeper communication aids team building and improves collaboration, allowing people to focus their energy on work and lean into coworkers when they need help.
Builds trust: Life doesn’t start and stop at work. Understanding situational factors that guide an employee’s performance, decisions, or behavior builds trust that encourages staff to perform better, engage with the company and coworkers, and be honest about their abilities.
Dig a little deeper
Being late to work after a string of unlucky events doesn’t define your ability to manage your time — the same goes for those around you.
Now that you understand how the fundamental attribution error can cloud your judgments and encourage you to make snap decisions, take the time to recognize this mental habit and dig deeper when someone’s behavior surprises or upsets you.
In doing so, you’ll create stronger bonds, a healthier work environment, and a sense of trust and confidence between you and your coworkers.