The Fundamental Attribution Error is a concept derived from the field of social psychology. We are all guilty for committing this error.
As an example, try to think of a time that someone cut you off in traffic, or didn’t use their signal, or pulled out in front of you. Or maybe that time the wait staff at your favorite restaurant wasn’t quite nice. You were probably angry, frustrated and would have loved the opportunity to give that driver or waiter a piece of your mind.
The fundamental attribution error has to do with the fact that people tend to overly attribute behaviors to someone else’s traits and attitudes.
That person that cut you off in traffic – they’re a terrible driver and should have their license revoked. That waitress that was miserable – she should be fired, someone who doesn’t like interacting with people shouldn’t have a service job!
These very common thoughts are what the fundamental attribution error is all about – and that’s where the error itself lies – many of these people may just be having a bad day, or maybe they forgot to put on their turn signal because they had a long day at work, or maybe they cut you off in traffic simply because they didn’t see you.
An example of empirical data supporting the Fundamental Attribution Error comes from research using speeches. Each speech was either in support of or against Fidel Castro and his regime, and student raters were told that the writer of the speech either chose their position, or were given a position to defend.
You have to remember that it was the early '70s, so the U.S.’s disdain for Cuba was at an all-time high. When participants were told that the speech writer chose the topic, they would rate the speech writer as pro-Castro if the speech supported Castro, and as anti-Castro if the speech was against the dictator. When participants were instead told that the speech writer had no choice on their position, everyone, regardless of the speech writer’s position, was rated neutrally.
This demonstrates how context can influence our assignment of dispositions to other individuals. So next time you get cut off in traffic or have crabby wait staff be sure that you remember the Fundamental Attribution Error. Chances are they were just having a bad day.
This commentary originally ran on March 18, 2013