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The Fundamental Attribution Error illustration: a driver assuming someone is rude when they swerved in front of them rather than considering that they may have been running late and it been an accident - attributing character over context

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is the attribution of the source of behaviour to the character and personality of a person above the consideration of context. It's sometimes described as over-attributing causes to disposition over situation.

In a classic example, if a driver swerves in front of you suddenly, it's easy to attribute the cause of the behaviour to the driver being a jerk, i.e. to their character. What we may not see is that the driver is late to pick up their kids, was distracted by a challenging conversation they just had at work, and they're worried they've gone the wrong way and are driving an unfamiliar car.

If a colleague is late to meet us, we might infer that the person is lazy or disrespectful when, in fact, they may have been held up by a traffic accident, been on the phone with a sick relative, and have had trouble sleeping lately. If we are late for a meeting, well, then it's probably for all sorts of good reasons outside our control.

Like confirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error is a big one that can easily colour our interactions with others without us being aware of it.

Some ways to minimise it include:

  • Remember that what we see is just a tiny fraction of any other person's life and that we don't see the complete picture.
  • Minimise judgment, particularly around character and personality.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions.
  • Where appropriate, ask if anything is bothering others.
  • Build empathy for others as you would for yourself.
  • Reflect on the positive things others do.

Also see: self-serving biasattribution bias

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