It’s time to look beyond the surface.

Understanding cognitive distortions is like looking at the code of life’s operating system. The world around you starts to make more sense, people’s behaviour has added context, and illusions are revealed. Anyone on a search for truth and clarity will benefit from harnessing psychology’s research around such distortions.

When you spot a distortion, you’re empowered to change it. That applies to internal processes and self-development. It also applies to understanding another person’s behavior. A fundamental attribution error forms a problem, and fixing these can be of particular use in the workplace. Understanding this concept also has applications across a broader cross-section of life. 

Leaders wanting to get an accurate reflection of their team or better business insights, or those curious about the role of environment on behaviour, will benefit from learning about the empirical evidence related to fundamental attribution error. This article will cover all bases, including its importance, examples, and how you can avoid this distortion in your life.

Fundamental attribution error refers to…

Insight into the fundamental attribution error originated from the field of social psychology, which is the study of human behaviour in a social context. 

Other terms include attribution effect or correspondence bias. Psychologists Fritz Heider and Gustav Ichheiser were early pioneers, dedicating time in the 1950s to understand how people perceived the causes of human behaviour.

In 1967, a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Edward Jones Victor Harris developed an early hypothesis — that people naturally assign causes of behaviour to someone’s personality, and not their situation. The results of the study gained traction and kudos in the academic press, and in 1977 Lee Ross created the term fundamental attribution error.

Underestimating situational factors in others

The current definition of fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to overemphasize personal traits while underestimating situational factors. To ignore situational factors is a mistake, and this double-whammy leads to a cognitive distortion, as people overlook environmental factors, and make snap-judgements about a person’s character. 

The salience of the actor

Interestingly, when applied to the self, people are more likely to look at situational factors and less likely to follow the same line of reasoning. The psychological term for this is salience of the actor. People tend to see others as being in control and responsible for their decisions and dismiss situational influences, while acknowledging outside forces with their own behavior.

For example, if a stranger doesn’t hold a door for you, your initial judgment might be that they’re rude, or disrespectful. But let’s say you’re having “one of those days.” You’ve woken up late with a headache. You spill orange juice all over the kitchen floor. You have toothpaste on your sweater and notice once you’ve made it, just, to the packed subway. You’ve got an important meeting first thing, and as you’re on your way, last night’s argument with your partner replays in your mind. 

Before you know it, you’ve not held the door for three people. When you realize, it’s obvious! You were aware of internal factors and external factors in your life that caused you to be thoughtless at that moment, and you know it’s not an indication or a personality trait. 

Why is it important?

A useful insight of the fundamental attribution error extends to self-development and empathy. When on the receiving end of certain behaviors that might be offensive or upsetting, reverse-engineering the cause can lead to greater understanding and compassion. 

A Buddhist teaching that has always stuck with me links to the fundamental attribution error — always compare someone else’s behavior to your worst moment. In other words, if someone does something you find disagreeable and you feel a desire to judge, consider the question: “Have I ever acted in this way?” 

attribution errors

I find this surfacing during the times when I’m particularly tired, or stressed, and become a bit numb to the world. I might not smile as much, or I might be short with people I communicate with. Those moments are great markers for self-compassion, it happens to us all, and understanding others.

The importance of considering situational factors

Doesn’t it often feel like our culture encourages quick judgments and labeling of others? Cognitive distortions are known as mental heuristics because they’re used for quick, easy decisions. 

But that’s not how progress is made or understanding is developed. What happens when, rather than labeling others as “bad” or “lazy” or “rude,” you try to understand what could be contributing to their behavior?

Lee Ross was an intuitive psychologist, and felt fundamental attribution error was the “bedrock” of social psychology. You can see why. It’s linked to perspectives on a whole range of issues, including homelessness, racism, and other forms of discrimination. 

This fits the motivation for large bodies of research in social psychology, which was heavily influenced by the atrocities of World War II. How was it possible for seemingly “normal” people to support the Nazi regime? How could they commit such evil crimes?

Although it’s more comfortable to assign labels as “evil,” this overlooks situational factors. And when considering how to avoid similar situations in the future, labels serve no purpose. Granted there were certainly those who deserve that label. But to carry out such barbaric acts of inhumanity on a big scale required many, many people to buy into an ideology.

Fundamental attribution error examples

A good friend of mine sent me a commencement speech by the author David Foster Wallace. In the talk, Wallace oozes wisdom that leaves you viewing the world differently. 

His main theme is the power of perspective, and overcoming the default setting of feeling like the center of the universe. He talks through a mind-numbing scenario of sitting in traffic and going to the supermarket after work, articulated in a way only a world-class storyteller can. 

He builds a scene of torture and frustration. “Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think,” he says, “if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.” But then he builds an alternative view — one which provides a beautiful example of the fundamental attribution error:

“It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.” 

Shifting perspectives

This fundamental shift in perspective applies to every moment where there’s a temptation to judge someone’s apparently freely chosen behaviors. As a boss, an employee arrives late three days in a row. You might consider them lazy and choose to give them a warning. Or you might enquire to discover they’re currently caring for a sick relative or experiencing depression or anxiety.

Another modern example of the fundamental attribution error is communication. Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the backlog of emails, Facebook notifications, Instagram comments, and WhatsApp messages? As a result, who hasn’t taken a little too long to reply? It happens to us all. Yet when on the receiving end, it’s likely your first thought goes to how this person lacks integrity, or how they secretly don’t like you and are slowly phasing you out of their life. Or maybe that’s just me. Though I hope not.

How do I avoid fundamental attribution error?

It’s liberating to make this shift in perspective, as it starts to reveal that people’s behavior, as Don Miguel Ruiz taught in The Four Agreements, is never personal. Integrating this knowledge is a matter of trial and error, and developing new thinking processes over time. 

Some tips to avoid fundamental attribution error include:

Keep in mind the question: Have I ever acted in this way? 

Eventually it’ll become second nature to compare other people’s behavior to times when you’ve acted in a similar fashion. When realizing your behavior was based on a multitude of forces, you’ll be less likely to judge the other based on a label or a personality trait.

Always seek more context 

Whenever relevant, fill in the blanks by enquiring or looking to find additional context. This is particularly useful for those in leadership positions who can find out how the workplace is serving employees, or create an empathic approach to those who are underperforming.

fundamental attribution error
(Klaus Vedfelt / Getty)

Avoid the temptation to label

This process is from ego. It’s as simple as that. If you’re labeling someone, you’re positioning them in a certain way, and as confirmation bias shows, you’re then more likely to avoid evidence going against the label. If someone seems rude, it could just be that they’re an introvert and feeling anxious. You never know! Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t find people’s behavior disagreeable. But always keep compassion at hand, and seek to understand.

Put yourself in their shoes

As an extension of the above, go out of your way to actively do all you can to put yourself in that person’s perspective.

Apply this knowledge to yourself

Don’t let yourself off the hook with this newfound knowledge. Whenever you notice yourself blaming situational factors for certain behavior, consider whether you’re using them as an excuse. Could it be certain patterns are unfolding that require further self-inquiry?

These steps allow you to go a step further. When acknowledging situational factors are at play, consider what could change to help support this person behave in a way that feels better for them, and better for you. Let’s say your partner goes through a spell of canceling plans or generally becomes snappy or irritable. 

One option is to feel personally rejected and close off, waiting for them to change. Another is to enquire. You then might find out they’re stressed at work. And inspired to choose love, you offer to carry out a few chores and cook dinner throughout the week to lighten the load.

A situation that could’ve caused additional conflict and distance has become an opportunity for greater togetherness.

In conclusion

Understanding the fundamental attribution error, and applying its knowledge, is a way to create greater self-awareness, higher emotional intelligence, a more positive attitude and more harmony in relationships or groups. Applying it as part of your perspective on life will reduce cognitive biases and support a positive mindset that is more accepting, more considerate, and less judgemental of others. It will make it easier to see positive character traits in others. 

The fundamental attribution error is a reminder that life is complex, and so are people. It’s tempting to judge others based on personality traits, to write others off, or place successful people on pedestals.

But what happens when you look below the surface? Could it be that you get closer to truth, and closer to an understanding of shared humanity? These (apparently) chance directed behaviors are often the result of a larger context, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Could it be that the next time someone cuts you up in traffic or doesn’t hold a door or respond to your compelling WhatsApp message, your default setting becomes understanding and forgiveness? I hope so!