Why do we underestimate the influence of the situation on people’s behavior?
Fundamental Attribution Error, explained.
What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?
The fundamental attribution error (FAE) describes how, when making judgments about people’s behavior, we often overemphasize dispositional factors and downplay situational ones.5 In other words, we believe that people’s personality traits have more influence on their actions, compared to the other factors over which they don’t have control.
Where this bias occurs
Let’s say you’re driving to work one day, and somebody cuts you off. Furious, you decide that the other driver is a selfish person, who doesn’t care about other people’s safety. In fact, the other driver rarely cuts people off, and normally they are very careful about safety—but right now they’re on the way to a hospital for a family emergency, so they’re acting differently than they usually would.
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Because of the FAE, most of us walk around believing that dispositional factors (that is, people’s personality traits) are more powerful than situational ones. In other words, we assume that no matter what the circumstances, an individual’s actions will still generally reflect what they are like as a person. This can cause us to make unfair and incorrect judgments about people, discounting any possible reasons that might have contributed to their behavior.
We are particularly likely to commit the FAE when considering certain kinds of behavior, including behavior we consider to be immoral. This can become a barrier to addressing systemic issues in our society.
The FAE vs. the actor–observer bias
The FAE is often confused with another, similar phenomenon, the actor–observer bias (also known as actor–observer asymmetry). According to this cognitive bias, people have a tendency to make dispositional attributions for other people’s behavior, and situational attributions for their own. In other words, while we like to explain our own actions in terms of the various external factors that might have caused us to act the way that we did, when it comes to other people, we are quicker to say that they act the way they do because that’s just the “way they are.”1
The FAE vs. the correspondence bias
Another bias that is often confused with the FAE is known as the correspondence bias. To make things extra confusing, for a long time, the two terms were actually used interchangeably, before a number of researchers started to argue that they were distinct.5
Technically speaking, the correspondence bias describes people’s tendency to infer things about the personalities of others, based on their behavior.4,5 Put another way, we assume that people’s actions correspond to their internal attitudes. Meanwhile, the FAE speaks to how we underestimate the impact of situational factors.
While these biases are separate, the FAE can contribute to the correspondence bias. For example, let’s say you are watching a classmate give a presentation. They seem nervous: they’re sweating, fidgeting, and stuttering. The FAE might cause you to downplay the fact that the situation (giving a class presentation) is stressful for most people. In turn, the correspondence bias could lead you to infer from your classmate’s behavior that they must be an anxious person in general.
Why it happens
On an intellectual level, we all understand that people’s behavior is shaped by the situations they find themselves in. Very few people would try to argue that everybody behaves in exactly the same way, regardless of the circumstances. The problem is not that we lack situational theory (i.e. awareness of the power of the situation). Rather, the FAE comes up when we fail to apply this understanding properly.3
Sometimes, we fail to account for the situation simply because we lack awareness of it.6 If we don’t have all the relevant information, obviously we can’t make a reasonable judgment about someone’s behavior. However, as research has shown, people often commit the FAE even when they’re fully aware of what’s going on.
In a classic study by Edward Jones and Victor Harris, university students read essays that either defended or criticized Fidel Castro, the leader of the Communist Party of Cuba. Some participants were told the writer had chosen whether to write for or against Castro, while others were told the writer was assigned a position. The researchers were surprised to find that, even when participants were told the writer hadn’t chosen which side they would be on, they still believed that the author’s opinions about Castro were consistent with the argument they made in the essay.7 Other studies have shown that this effect happens independent of participants’ own opinions. It also shows up when they have been given extra information about the writer, or warned to avoid bias.3
So, why do people commit the FAE even when they should know situational factors might be at play? There are a few different reasons this might happen.
Accounting for the situation takes up mental resources
In some cases, the FAE seems to happen in part because it takes effort to adjust our perception of somebody’s behavior to be more in line with the situation they’re in. We have limited cognitives resources, and generally speaking, our brains like to take the route that expends as little energy as possible. This leads us to take cognitive shortcuts (known as heuristics), and also makes us vulnerable to a whole raft of cognitive biases.
When we are mentally processing somebody else’s actions, there are three steps we need to go through. First, we categorize the behavior (i.e. what is this person doing?). Second, we make a dispositional characterisation (i.e. what does this behavior imply about this person’s personality?). Finally, we apply a situational correction (i.e. what aspects of the situation might have contributed to this behavior?).3
While the first two steps seem to happen pretty much automatically, the third step requires more of a deliberate effort on our part—meaning it often gets skipped over, especially in situations where we don’t have the cognitive resources to go through it. For example, this could happen if we’re distracted by something else, or if we don’t have time for it.
There is empirical evidence to back up this explanation. In one study by Gilbert et al. (1988), participants watched a (silent) video of a woman who was behaving anxiously. For some participants, subtitles in the video indicated that the woman was being interviewed about topics that would make most people uncomfortable, such as sexual fantasies. For others, the subtitles showed an interview about relatively boring topics, such as ideal vacations. On top of this, the researchers also manipulated the participants’ cognitive capacity, by telling some of them they would have to take a memory test about the interview topics afterwards. This meant that these participants would be partially distracted while they watched the video, as they tried to commit the topics to memory.
The results of this experiment showed that, when participants were distracted, they were more likely to make dispositional attributions for the woman’s anxiety. In other words, their explanations for her anxious behavior related to stable qualities of her personality: they said she was an anxious person in general. Meanwhile, participants who didn’t have to worry about a test only made dispositional attributions if they had seen the boring version of the interview, because those who had seen the anxiety-provoking version understood that she was made uncomfortable by the questions.8
The FAE is affected by our mood
Other research has shown that we are more likely to commit the FAE when we’re in a good mood, compared to when we’re in a bad mood. In one study, based on Jones & Harris’ Castro experiment, participants read essays that were for or against nuclear testing, and then made judgments about the writer’s opinions on the subject. However, this study had an added twist. Before reading the essays, the participants completed a verbal abilities test, where they had to complete sentences such as “Car is to road as train is to…” The questions ranged from easy to hard, including several that didn’t actually have any one “correct” answer (such as “Bread is to butter as river is to…”).
To manipulate participants’ moods, once they finished the test, an experimenter either told them that they’d performed either above or below average. After this was done, they went on to read the essays, with some being told that the writer had picked their argument and others told that they had been forced to argue a specific side. The results of this study showed that happy participants were more likely to commit the FAE, but only when the writer had been assigned an opinion and argued for an unpopular stance.9
Why would this happen? Overall, it seems like being in a bad mood can make us more vigilant and systematic in our processing, which helps us to pay closer attention and retain more information. In fact, compared to participants who were put in a bad mood, happy participants were able to recall fewer details about the essay they had just read, suggesting that good moods can actually impair memory.
The fact that participants were more prone to the FAE only when they had read an essay with an unpopular opinion might also indicate that they were relying on heuristics, or stereotypes, about people who hold that opinion, and that their happy mood made them less likely to question their reliance on those stereotypes.
To sum up, being in a good mood might make us process our environment in a more careless way, making us more susceptible to taking shortcuts—and less likely to make it through that final phase of situational correction.
Sometimes we ignore the situation on purpose
As we have seen, if we’re low on cognitive resources or something else is clouding our processing, we might skip the situational correction phase and end up committing the FAE. But other times, even when we have the cognitive capacity to think things through, we might choose to neglect the situation anyway. This happens when we believe that a behavior is highly diagnostic (i.e. indicative) of a specific personality trait.
To explain this, let’s look at immoral behaviors, such as stealing or doing harm to another person. Studies have shown that people tend to think of immoral behavior as highly diagnostic of immoral personality traits. In other words, people think that somebody must be an immoral person in order for them to do something immoral. By contrast, they don’t generally apply the same logic to moral behaviors—so, somebody who steals an old lady’s purse is assumed to be an evil person, but somebody who helps an old lady across the street isn’t necessarily a saint.4
When we’re considering behaviors that we see as highly diagnostic, we believe that they are necessary and sufficient for us to make judgments about the person doing them. This leads us to commit the FAE.
Why it is important
Every person plays the role of a psychologist in their day-to-day life. We are constantly trying to figure out why other people act the way they do, and making decisions about others based on their behavior. When the FAE leads us to make incorrect judgments about other people and their behavior, this can harm our relationships with others and negatively affect how we interact with them in the future.
The FAE also has broader societal consequences. As discussed above, we are especially likely to commit the FAE when it comes to perceived immoral behavior, which often lines up with the kinds of things that are criminalized in our society—for example, theft or drug use. This means we are biased to ignore situational factors that might have led somebody to behave a certain way. In turn, this can lead us to ignore systemic factors, such as discrimination, that contribute to criminal behavior and other negative outcomes, and fixate solely on individuals. Overcoming the FAE will likely be an important step towards fixing these broken systems.
How to avoid it
As we have seen from the experiments above, the FAE is a tricky bias to overcome: it defies what we know about a situation and the world, and pushes us to draw irrational conclusions. However, even though it’s not possible to completely avoid this bias, there are steps you can take to help yourself correct for the situation.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
One of the best antidotes to the FAE is some good old empathy.10 It’s easy to blame other people’s conduct on some permanent fixture of their personality, especially when we view that behavior negatively—but it’s hard to keep feeling that way once you imagine how you’d feel in their position. If the roles were reversed, you would probably want other people to give you the benefit of the doubt, and understand that your mistakes aren’t necessarily reflective of who you are as a person.
To counter the FAE and improve relationships more broadly, one helpful goal is to build emotional intelligence (EI). EI includes empathy, as well as self-awareness, self-regulation, and other traits. Building EI is a longer-term project, but it can involve exercises such as regular journaling, or even taking a course with a professional.11,12
Focus on the positive
As people, we are all multifaceted; we have our good traits, and we have our bad ones. If you find yourself feeling resentful towards somebody for something they did, try to remind yourself of their better qualities, and that this one action probably doesn’t represent them fully.11
How it all started
The question of how we understand other people is fundamental (pun intended) to social psychology, and many thinkers have addressed it in different ways over the years. In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin, one of the pioneers of modern social psychology, wrote about the importance of the situation in determining people’s behavior, an idea that became central in his work and in the field more generally. The power of situational factors became even more important after World War II, when social psychology made it its mission to understand how it was that human beings could perpetrate the horrors of the Holocaust.
Decades before Jones and Harris conducted their Castro study, and before Lee Ross coined the term “fundamental attribution error,” the psychoanalyst Gustav Ichheiser wrote that a “social blindness” often led people to ascribe other’s actions to their personality traits: “Many things which happened between the two world wars would not have happened if social blindness had not prevented the privileged from understanding the predicament of those who were living in an invisible jail.”6 Despite this, the FAE (and the related correspondence bias) weren’t formally studied until the 1970s.
Example 1 - Social scientists
Apart from its effects on everyday life, the FAE is important to keep in mind in the context of social science research and how we interpret it. In his 1977 article on the FAE, Lee Ross discussed its relevance to social psychology in particular.2
If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you’ve probably read about classic social psychology experiments such as the Milgram study (which tested how far people’s obedience of authority could be pushed) and the Asch studies (which were about conformity). According to Ross, the reason that many of these experiments have become so famous and influential is because of the FAE. Their results, which demonstrated the power of the situation, were memorable only because people—including the social psychologists conducting and reading about these studies—are susceptible to believing that internal factors are stronger than external ones. In other words, their impact depended on the FAE.
Example 2 - Racial bias
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has found that people who are generally less prone to the FAE are also less likely to endorse racist beliefs. People seem to vary in their “attributional complexity,” a trait that describes how people generally explain the behaviors of others. Attributionally complex people are more motivated to explain human behavior, have a preference for complex rather than simple answers, and have a stronger awareness of the power of social situations on human behavior.
Naturally, these traits make people less likely to fall for the FAE, but they also tend to have fewer racist beliefs. In one study, researchers measured participants’ racism by having them rate their agreement with various statements (e.g. “Differences between ethnic groups at innate”). They also measured attributional complexity, using statements like “I don’t usually bother to analyze and explain people’s behavior.” The results showed that attributional complexity was statistically associated with racism.13
What it is
The fundamental attribution error describes how we overemphasize a person’s internal traits when trying to explain their behavior, and underemphasize situational factors.
Why it happens
Generally speaking, the FAE happens because adjusting our perception to account for the situation takes effort, and we might not always have the time or cognitive resources to do so. Other times, we ignore the situation because we believe that it’s not relevant, instead seeing behavior as diagnostic of certain personality traits.
Example 1 - Social science and the FAE
As Lee Ross wrote when he coined this bias, the impact of many classic social psychology studies depends on the pervasiveness of the FAE. The only reason that studies such as the Milgram experiment are so surprising is because people, even psychologists, are susceptible to the belief that a person’s disposition is more powerful than the situation.
Example 2 - The FAE and racial bias
Research has shown that attributional complexity, which makes people less likely to commit the FAE, is inversely correlated with racial bias. In other words, the more attributional complexity, the less racism.
How to avoid it
In a nutshell, avoiding the FAE requires empathy, and a deliberate effort to achieve a more balanced view of a person and their circumstances. Building emotional intelligence and gratitude for a person’s good qualities is helpful.
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What Rock-Paper-Scissors Can Teach Us About Our Decision-Making
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