Fundamental Attribution Error

What Is Fundamental Attribution Error?

When explaining others’ behavior, people are likely to underestimate the effect of the situation and overestimate the effect of the person’s intentions, attitudes, abilities, or personality. In other words, we tend to think the actions of others have internal causes even if they are actually caused by external forces or circumstances. This tendency is called fundamental attributiion error.

The fundamental attribution error, originally identified by Lee Ross (1977), refers to a tendency for people to make personal or dispositional attributions for others’ behavior, even when there are clear external/environmental causes.

People have a bias to attribute another person’s behavior to internal or dispositional causes (e.g., the person’s intentions, attitudes, abilities, or personality traits) to a much greater extent than they should. People fail to take full notice and consideration of the external factors (e.g., the situation, constraints of the social environment) that are operating on the person.

In short, we tend to perceive others as acting as they do, because they are ‘that kind of person’, rather than because of the many external factors, that may influence their behavior. One amusing example of this bias is the tendency of people to attribute the actions of actors in television programs to the personality of the actor rather than the obvious external cause—that they are playing a character (Tal-Or & Papirman, 2007).

This is especially salient to social psychologists, who have traditionally studied how situations cause behavior—they think that the average person fails to appreciate how strong situational causes can be. This bias is found in individuals from both collectivist and individualist cultures (Krull, Loy, & Lin, 1999).

The fundamental attribution error may also be responsible for a number of more general explanatory tendencies: for example, the tendency to attribute road accidents unduly to the driver rather than to the vehicle or the road conditions (Barjonet, 1980); and the tendency among some people to attribute poverty and unemployment to the person rather than to social conditions.

This bias or error in attributing others’ behavior more to internal than situational causes is sometimes called correspondence bias Opens in new window. When the error involves making an internal attribution about whole groups of people instead of individuals it is called the ultimate attribution error Opens in new window (Pettigrew, 1979).

We should add that while the fundamental attribution error does seem to be very widespread in occurrence, the recent findings indicate that the tendency to attribute other’s actions to the dispositional or personal causes seems to be the strongest in the situations where both the consensus and the distinctiveness are low, as predicted by Kelly’s Covariation Model Opens in new window.

Causes of Fundamental Attribution Error

Different explanations of the fundamental attribution error have been proposed (as follow).

Focus of attention

The actor’s behavior attracts more attention than situational factors, which are often hidden. Behavior is disproportionately salient in cognition, stands out as the figure against the situational background, and it is therefore overrepresented casually (Taylor & Fiske, 1978). Thus the actor and the actor’s behavior form what Heider (1958) called a ‘causal unit’. This explanation makes quite a lot of sense.

Procedures designed to focus attention away from the actor and on to the situation have been shown to increase the tendency to make a situational rather than disposition attribution (e.g. Rholes & Pryor, 1982). When people really want to find out about a situation from a person’s behavior, they focus on the situation and are less likely to leap to a dispositional attribution. In this case, the fundamental attribution error is muted or reversed (Krull, 1993).

Differential forgetting

Attribution Opens in new window requires the representation of causal information in memory. There is some evidence that people tend to forget situational causes more readily than dispositional causes, thus producing a dispositional shift over time (Moore, Sherrod, Liu & Underwood, 1979). Other studies show the opposite effect and Funder (1982) has argued that the direction of shift depends on the focus of information processing and occurs immediately after the behavior being attributed.

Cultural factors

The perspective of social psychologists is that the fundamental attribution error is influenced by culture Opens in new window. People from individualistic cultures (e.g., American) make more fundamental attribution errors than those from more collectivistic (e.g., Chinese) cultures. This finding holds true even when confounding variables are controlled (Norenzayan & Nisbett, 2000).

Norenzayan and Nisbett (2000) review research indicating that Americans more than Hindu Indians, Chinese, and Koreans make the fundamental attribution error. They suggest that cultures who historically think more holistically rather than analytically are less likely to make fundamental attribution errors.

Cognitive factors

People are cognitive misers; they often take quick and easy answers rather than thinking long and hard about things. It takes considerably less cognitive effort to make internal attributions than to make external attributions by thinking about all the external factors that might be operating on the person.

Linguistic factors

One final, rather interesting, observation by Nisbett and Ross (1980) is that the English language is so constructed that it is usually relatively easy to describe an action and the actor in the same terms, and much more difficult to describe the situation in the same way. For example, we can talk about a kind or honest person, and a kind or honest action, but not a kind or honest situation.

The English language may facilitate dispositional explanations because it is richer in trait-like terms to explain behavior than in situational terms (Semin & Fiedler, 1991). Try this simple exercise: First, write down as many terms as you can think of to describe an individual’s personality or inner disposition. Next, write down as many terms as you can think of to describe the situational factors that could influence a person.

There are thousands of trait adjectives for explaining behavior in terms of dispositional qualities (e.g., intelligent, outgoing, funny, introverted, mean, nice, creative, dull, crazy, logical, flexible, patient, emotional), whereas there are relatively few terms for explaining behavior in situational terms (e.g., role, status, pressure, circumstance).