Have you ever witnessed someone doing something you found morally wrong, and instantly labelled them as a “bad” person? Or have you ever witnessed someone making a mistake, and thought to yourself “I would never have done that”? If you have, then you may have fallen prey to a psychological phenomenon known as “fundamental attribution error”.
What is a fundamental attribution error?
Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a cognitive bias that describes how we tend to attribute others’ behaviours to their character traits, rather than to external factors such as the situation or circumstances. In simpler terms, we tend to think that people do what they do because of who they are, not because of the situation they find themselves in.
For instance, if someone cuts us off in traffic, we might assume that the driver is a rude and reckless person, rather than considering the possibility that they are in a hurry or distracted by something. Similarly, if we see someone failing a test, we might assume that they are not intelligent or lazy, without considering the possibility that they were sick or had other factors affecting their performance.
How does fundamental attribution error affect our judgements?
Fundamental attribution errors can have a significant impact on our judgements and interactions with others. When we make assumptions about someone’s character based on their behaviour, we tend to make judgments that may not be accurate or fair. This can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and even discrimination.
For example, if we assume that someone is rude or lazy because of a single behaviour, we may treat them poorly or avoid interacting with them, even if that behaviour was caused by external factors beyond their control. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the person we judged poorly ends up acting in ways that confirm our biases.
How can we overcome fundamental attribution errors?
Fortunately, there are several strategies we can use to overcome fundamental attribution errors and make more accurate and fair judgments about others. Here are a few:
- Consider the situation. When we see someone behaving in a certain way, we should try to consider the situation they are in. Are they under stress? Are they dealing with personal issues? Are there external factors that could be influencing their behaviour? By considering the context, we can avoid jumping to conclusions about someone’s character.
- Look for alternative explanations. Instead of assuming that someone’s behaviour is a reflection of their personality, we should consider alternative explanations. For instance, if someone is late for a meeting, we might assume they are disrespectful, but they could also be dealing with unexpected traffic or an urgent matter that delayed them. By considering alternative explanations, we can avoid making unfair judgements.
- Challenge your assumptions. When we catch ourselves making assumptions about someone’s character, we should challenge our assumptions and try to see the situation from their perspective. By doing so, we can gain a better understanding of the person and avoid making hasty judgements.
- Practice empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. By practising empathy, we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective. This can help us to avoid making unfair judgments and improve our interactions with others.
Fundamental attribution error is a common cognitive bias that affects our judgements and interactions with others. By recognising this bias and using the strategies outlined above, we can overcome it and make more accurate and fair judgements. By doing so, we can improve our relationships with others and create a more compassionate and understanding world. Remember, we all make mistakes, and by avoiding fundamental attribution errors, we can give others the benefit of the doubt and create a more forgiving and empathetic society.