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How to Avoid (and Spot) Fundamental Attribution Error


Think about the last time someone offended you. If you’re anything like me, your gut reaction is to think that person is a total jerk and you may be tempted to say some choice words.

This gut reaction of assuming that the person is a jerk based upon their behavior is a prime example of the fundamental attribution error. When we assume that a person’s actions are a direct reflection of their personality, we become victims of the fundamental attribution error. We can learn to avoid this innate bias to help us stop quick judgments in their tracks and improve our relationships.

If you’re ready to stop making unfair assumptions about your fellow man, then we’ve got you covered. This article will teach you steps you can take today to avoid the fundamental attribution error.

What is the fundamental attribution error?

The fundamental attribution error is a bias where we assume that a person’s actions reflect their personality instead of potential situational or environmental factors.

In other words, we assume that people’s behavior occurs because that’s who they are as a person instead of based on their circumstances. It’s the cognitive bias behind the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.

It’s easier for us to assume that someone’s actions stem from their personality than it is for us to try to look deeper. This stems back to the fact that our brain is constantly seeking shortcuts to save us mental energy.

But if we’re not careful, we can make assumptions that hurt both parties and cause us to miss out on deeper relationships.

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What are examples of the fundamental attribution error?

One of my favorite examples of the fundamental attribution error happens to me almost daily on the way to work. I begin my drive hopeful as I sip my coffee and await for the anticipated caffeine buzz to commence.

Within moments, someone cuts me off. I immediately assume that this person is a terrible human with no concern for his fellow humans.

In reality, this person may be driving their pregnant wife to the emergency room. Or they may have genuinely not seen me and feel terrible about their mistake.

Another common place I run into the fundamental attribution error is in the workplace. There are inevitably moments when a patient is rude when I ask them to try a new exercise during a treatment session.

My monkey mind has a tendency to assume that this person is mean and has no desire to get better. Thankfully, I don’t act on this first response.

In reality, this person may just be in so much pain that they are afraid of the new exercise. Or maybe they’ve had a bad experience with a similar exercise during a prior bout of physical therapy.

These examples highlight how the fundamental attribution error limits your view of a person. We make assumptions before knowing the whole story.

And this is why it’s key to avoid the fundamental attribution error if we want to develop healthy relationships and reduce our stress.

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Studies on the fundamental attribution error

Many studies have been performed to demonstrate the existence of the fundamental attribution error. One particularly interesting study examined how we view actors in the real world after they play a villain in a film.

Participants were asked to watch the film with the actor portraying a villain. Afterward, they saw that same actor give a public service announcement. Participants were less likely to give the actor a positive rating and felt less connected to them after seeing them portray the villain.

This explains to me why I have a hard time liking Anthony Hopkins no matter how hard I try.

Another study demonstrated the presence of the fundamental attribution error in the field of medicine. The research found that physicians were more likely to diagnose cognitive deficits as severe when the patient was resistant as opposed to a patient who was receptive to their diagnosis.

As a clinician myself, I found this particularly fascinating. It made me stop and wonder if I am making unfair assumptions about a person’s condition based on their disposition.

All this is to say that it’s clear that no one is immune from experiencing the fundamental attribution error.

How does the fundamental attribution error affect your mental health

A large part of having well-rounded mental health is having healthy relationships. And as it turns out, the fundamental attribution error plays a role in our relational satisfaction and how we engage in conflict.

A study in 2018 found that married couples reported higher levels of marital satisfaction and positive conflict resolution styles when they held a positive view of their spouse. When individuals held a negative view of their spouse, this negatively influenced how they engaged in conflict and their marital satisfaction.

I can relate to this on a personal level with my husband. I am generally more forgiving of his mistakes because I believe him to be a genuinely kind human being.

I also personally think that the fundamental attribution error influences my stress levels more often than I would like. I think about all the times I get upset during the day when someone acts unkind.

Just today someone told me they thought physical therapy was a waste of time. My stress level immediately spiked and I wanted to tell them how inconsiderate they were being.

When in reality, I’m letting the fundamental attribution error dictate my mood and emotions. For all I know, this person could just be having a bad day or could be fed up with the cost of physical therapy.

More times than not, statements like that have nothing to do with them or with me personally. Yet I assume they do and this unnecessarily increases my stress levels.

It all comes down to consistently working to avoid the fundamental attribution error to protect your mental and relational well-being.  

5 ways to avoid the fundamental attribution error

If you’re ready to grow as a human and stop making assumptions about your fellow man, then these tips were made for you.

It’s not easy to avoid the fundamental attribution error, but with effort, you can do it.

1. Look for other explanations

When you start to make an assumption about someone based on their behavior, ask yourself to come up with other plausible explanations.

Remember my getting cut off in traffic example from earlier? I have trained myself to think of at least 3 reasons why that person may have cut me off.

Sometimes I assume that the person has neck pain that’s limiting their mobility that allows them to see behind them. Or I imagine this husband who is rushing to the hospital because his wife is about to deliver their first child.

Thinking like this creates a totally different perception of the person driving the car. And it makes my drive to work much less stressful.

Come up with other explanations for a person’s behavior and you will realize that there are many possible reasonable explanations.

2. Remember you’re human, too

I hate to admit it, but I have had bad days when I am not the kindest human. And whether you want to admit it or not, you aren’t perfect either.

If we all had a bit more grace with each other when it came to our behavior, we could stop the fundamental attribution error in its tracks.

Sometimes when we’re having a particularly yucky day or find ourselves in a rut, our actions don’t reflect who we are at our core.

I try to assume, within reason, that everyone is inherently good. This allows me to give people grace when they act in a way that I disagree with without assuming something about their nature.

Forgive people often and assume the best intentions of your fellow mankind.

3. Step away

It’s easy to give into your initial reaction to a situation and incorrectly judge someone. This is why sometimes it’s better for you to step away instead of going with your gut reaction.

I was helping with an interview a few years back. The interviewee showed up late and cursed a few minutes into the interview.

Now based on these actions, I assumed this candidate was sloppy and not a good fit. I also found myself not listening as well. Thankfully, we took a break mid-interview and I was able to get my attention back on course.

She then started talking about her experience and ideas for the company. She had past experience and creative ideas that were clearly going to be an asset to our team.

Had I gone with my gut reaction, I would have missed out on working with one of my favorite co-workers who really enhanced our team.

Check your gut reaction and take a break instead before judging a person based on potential situational factors.

4. Remember someone's positive past behavior

Depending on the situation, this tip can be a hard one to put into practice.

When I am awfully mad with a friend or loved one, it’s easy for me to start spewing not-so-kind words about their character.

However, if I stop to think about moments when this person demonstrated positive behavior in the past these thoughts start to fade.

The other day I was upset with one of my cousins because they decided to ditch their responsibilities last minute for a big family event. I started to think how irresponsible they were and how they didn’t care for the family.

But then I remembered the time they drove all night to come take care of our grandparents when they were sick. And I thought about the time they paid for their mother’s rent.

And I realized I was falling victim to the fundamental attribution error yet again.

Try to remember the person’s behavior on the whole spectrum to help you remember that situational influences are usually to blame, not the person’s character.

5. Open the door for communication

If you’re making assumptions about someone before you know the whole story, perhaps it’s time you ask to hear the whole story. I say that like it’s easy, but I fully acknowledge that this can be tricky at times.

When you open the door for communication, you give the person a chance to explain the circumstances guiding their behavior.

When I finally called up my cousin regarding the situation I just mentioned, he explained to me that he had to cover for a coworker who was just diagnosed with cancer. Immediately I felt like the one who was the jerk.

A little communication goes a long way when it comes to overcoming the fundamental attribution error.

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Wrapping up

At the end of the day, human behavior in and of itself rarely tells the whole story. Using the tips from this article, you can avoid the fundamental attribution error to stop making false assumptions about your fellow man. And as you practice putting these tips into action, you may realize that mankind is full of a lot of kind-hearted folks.

When was the last time you portrayed a typical case of fundamental attribution error? And what's your favorite tip in this article? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Ashley Kaiser

Writer

Physical therapist, writer, and outdoor enthusiast from Arizona. Self-proclaimed dark chocolate addict and full-time adrenaline junkie. Obsessed with my dog and depending on the day my husband, too.

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