Before learning about fundamental attribution error, you should first have a solid understanding of attribution theory. If you don’t know what that is, I recommend reading: Attribution Theory first.
In short, attribution theory states that we have a tendency to explain someone’s behavior in terms of their personality and disposition (Internal), or in terms of the situation (External).
Sheila failed her final exam. Rita automatically assumes that the reason is Sheila’s inability to study. Because the attributions involved in the explanation is internal (Sheila’s personal issues), it’s an example of Dispositional or Internal Attribution.
Likewise, Sheila explains that the reason for her failure was because the questions were difficult, rather than her inability to answer them. She blames the situation rather than herself. This is an example of Situational or External Attribution.
If you blamed Sheila’s inability to study to her personality, then you have made the fundamental attribution error.
Fundamental Attribution Error
Fundamental attribution error is also known as the attribution effect or the correspondence bias.
Our tendency to explain someone’s behavior based on the internal factors, such as personality or disposition, is explained as fundamental attribution error. The use of the error in the term ‘fundamental attribution error’ is not a coincidence. It implies that our judgment might be wrong.
While it doesn’t necessarily mean that every behavior is caused due to the external situation, we’re often too quick to explain someone’s behavior in terms of their personality or disposition. This context is particularly true when the behavior is negative.
Examples of Fundamental Attribution Error in Real World
The famous example of fundamental attribution error is regarding driving.
When someone cuts us off while driving, we immediately think the driver is a ‘self-centered jerk’, who has no regard for anyone on the road. We do not hesitate even for a moment to label the driver as a bad person.
On the other hand, when we cut someone off in traffic, we come up with excuses to validate our actions. While we tend to judge the other driver’s behavior to his personality or dispositional traits, we tend to blame the situational factors for our own actions.
Fundamental Attribution Error in Movies
Fundamental Attribution Error is commonly displayed in the movies. Various characters in movies are considered bad or evil by nature.
In simple terms, a bad guy is a bad guy doing bad things because he’s a bad guy.
Let’s look at the movie ‘The Breakfast Club’.
In the movie, a character named Bender is portrayed as free-loading, aggressive and disrespectful. What we fail to see is his tough home life. The aggressiveness isn’t something he was born with rather he had to become tough because of the constant physical and verbal abuse he had to fend off on the daily basis.
There are plenty of other examples where not only the characters in the movie, but we as an audience also fail to consider the external factors that drive a character.
Our tendency to rationalize our behavior while ridiculing someone else’s is best explained as fundamental attribution bias. Human nature demands that we become biased. Nobody likes to be harsh about their own character, however fair and justifiable that may be.
A study revealed that we are more likely to blame a person’s behavior on his/her actions 65% of the time. But when we do the same thing, we only tend to take responsibility 44% of the time.
A word from Psychestudy
Fundamental Attribution Error only comes into play when we’re wrong about our judgment. There are plenty of cases where a person might commit certain actions completely because of his own personality.
A man might be unemployed because he is lazy.