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Fundamental Attribution Error

 

Explanations > Theories > Fundamental Attribution Error

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

When we are trying to understand and explain what happens in social settings, we tend to view behavior as a particularly significant factor. We then tend to explain behavior in terms of internal disposition, such as personality traits, abilities, motives, etc. as opposed to external situational factors.

This can be due to our focus on the person more than their situation, about which we may know very little. We also know little about how they are interpreting the situation.

Western culture exacerbates this error, as we emphasize individual freedom and autonomy and are socialized to prefer dispositional factors to situational ones.

When we are playing the role of observer, which is largely when we look at others, we make this fundamental attribution error. When we are thinking about ourselves, however, we will tend to make situational attributions.

Research

Edward Jones and Victor Harris (1967) asked people to assess a person’s pro- or anti-Castro feelings given an essay a person had written. Even when the people were told the person had been directed to write pro- or anti- arguments, the people still assumed the author believed what they were writing.

Example

I assume you have not done much today because you are lazy, rather than perhaps tired or lack the right resources.

So what?

Using it

Beware of people blaming you for things outside of your control. Also watch out for people doing it to you. You can make friends and build trust when individuals are blamed by others, by showing that you understand how it is not to do with their personality.

Defending

Watch how others make attributions. When they seem to go against the trend and be in your favor, be curious about their motives.

See also

Actor-Observer Difference, Attribution Theory, Correspondence Bias, Correspondent Inference Theory, Covariation Model, Positivity Effect, Ultimate Attribution Error

References

Heider (1958), Ross (1977), Jones and Nisbett (1972), Jones and Harris (1967)

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