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.