We’re up to the 8th of the cognitive biases that I’d like to discuss. A few posts ago, I was trying to decide between the confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error and decided on the confirmation bias. I’m not sure why I decided to go with the gambler’s fallacy in the last post (as opposed to the fundamental attribution error), so I thought I’d “circle back” and pick up the fundamental attribution error… in case you were really pining for it.

The fundamental attribution error may sound complicated (I mean, hey, there are three words!), but it’s actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. Normally, I explain the bias and then provide examples, but I think talking about an example will help to solidify the understanding of this bias. In a study done in 1967, researchers asked participants to assess whether a person was pro-/anti-Castro based on an essay the person had written. In one group, participants were told that the essayists were able to choose whether they wanted to write for the pro-side or the anti-side. Of course, when participants believed that essayists were able to choose which side they wanted to write for, they rated those essayists as having more positive (or negative) feelings towards Castro. In the second group, participants were told that the essayists would have their position determined by a coin flip. Meaning, the essayists had no control over whether they were going to be writing a positive/negative essay of Castro. It was all left up to chance (the situation!). Despite the participants’ knowledge of this, on average, they still rated the positive essays as a sign that those essayists had a positive view of Castro. Similarly for the negative essays as a sign that those essayists had a negative view of Castro. Participants were blind to the situation constraints

So that’s the fundamental attribution error — the idea that the situation dictates the behavior of the person, rather than the person’s personality. If you’re looking for some more examples:

  • You call up your friend and find out that they’ve done nothing all day. You assume that your friend is lazy. In fact, your friend was up all night caring for their sick grandmother.
  • You’re sitting a stop light when it turns to green. You advance out into the intersection only to nearly be smashed into by someone who runs the red light. You scoff at the person for running the red light. Little did you know that person was racing to get a pregnant wife to the hospital as she’d just gone into labor. (Ironically, you’d done something similar the week earlier.)
  • Mitt Romney’s declaration that 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes will categorically support larger government “because those ‘who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them’ can never be persuaded to ‘take personal responsibility and care for their lives.'” In actuality, the 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes are “…not some distinct parasite class, but rather ordinary, hard-working people who either already have paid or will soon be paying quite substantial taxes.”

Ways for Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

1a) Empathy

As with many of the other biases, empathy is one of the quickest ways to thwart its power of you. If I put myself in the shoes of another, I’m more likely to understand that there might be more going on in the situation than I can see from my perspective. For instance, if we look at the red light example from above, by empathizing with the driver who runs the red light, I have a much higher chance of understanding that there running the red light is not a demonstration of their disregard for the world around them, but maybe that there’s something urgent to be taken care of.

1b) “Why Would a Rational Person Behave This Way?”

The above sentence is essentially a way to create a sense of empathy, but in case empathy is an ambiguous term, I’ve marked this ‘way’ 1b. Asking yourself this question will make it easier to consider the other factors at contributing to a situation.

Note: While the fundamental attribution error tells us that people make the mistake of devaluing the situational factors, it’s important not to sway too far the other way and totally discount the personality factors that might be contributing to a situation. For those folks that do sway too far to the situational factors affecting behavior, there’s a bias for it: actor-observer effect.

This article originally appeared on Jeremiah Stanghini and has been republished with permission.