The Fundamental Attribution Error

We aren’t all that good at accurately attributing causality. When someone behaves badly we jump to unflattering conclusions. The chief error we make is a simple one: We assume that people do what they do because of personality factors or flawed character. Why did that woman steal from a co-worker? Because she’s dishonest.


Human beings often employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in their environment (the situation). We make this attribution error because when we look at others, we see their actions far more readily than we see the forces behind them. Conversely we easily attribute our own negative behavior to the situation. Consider this the next time you’re cut off by another driver – he’s a jerk (or something else). If you’re driving down the road, taking your pregnant wife to the hospital and you almost miss the exit but cut off another driver, it’s the situation, not your character.


People often enact behaviors they take no joy in because of social pressure, lack of other options, or any of a variety of forces beyond personal pleasure. For example, the woman stole because she needed money to buy medicine for her children. Assuming that others do contrary things because it’s in their makeup or they actually enjoy doing them and then ignoring any other potential motivational forces is a mistake.


Psychologists classify this mistake as an attribution error. And because it happens so consistently across people, times and places, it is called the Fundamental Attribution Error.


Think about this as you evaluate an employee’s performance or a client’s demands. Are they jerks or could it be something about the situation or environment you aren’t aware of?

Michael Shapiro
Dynamic Management Solutions, Inc.



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