The Fundamental Attribution Error (also known as the correspondence bias) explains why people have a more general tendency to attribute behavior to dispositional causes. Even when behaviours are undeniably caused by situational factors, people will often favour an explanation that aligns with their judgement of an individual’s personal or character. This is a classic example of the general human tendency of underestimating how important social situations truly are in determining behavior.
A consequence of this bias is that we are too quick to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them, rather than to something about their situation.
The term was coined by Lee Ross after the now-classic experiment by Jones and Harris. Ross (1977) argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.
Another reason that this bias exists it that we tend to judge someone’s character as a consistent attribute.The implicit connotation is that someone “honest” in one area will be “honest” in most others, or someone “moral” in one situation is going to be “moral” elsewhere. In other words, people have a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person.
Interestingly, social psychologists have found that we make the fundamental attribution error about other people but rarely ourselves.
Researcher Linda Skitka and her colleagues (Skitka, Mullen, Griffin, Hutchinson, & Chamberlin, 2002) had participants read a brief story about a professor who had selected two student volunteers to come up in front of a class to participate in a trivia game. The students were described as having been randomly assigned to the role of either quizmaster or contestant by. The student playing the role of quizmaster was asked to generate five questions from his idiosyncratic knowledge (he would choose questions they would choose questions they knew the answer to).
Joe (the quizmaster) subsequently posed his questions to the other student Stan (the contestant). For example, Joe asked, “What cowboy movie actor’s sidekick is Smiley Burnette?” Stan replied, “I really don’t know. The only movie cowboy that pops to mind for me is John Wayne.” Joe asked four additional questions, and Stan was described as answering only one of the five questions correctly. After reading the story, the students were asked to indicate their impression of both Stan’s and Joe’s intelligence.
The participants in the study rated Joe as significantly more intelligent than Stan. However, the difference between the scores of Stan and Joe was not at all due to person factors but completely to the situation: Joe got to use his own personal store of esoteric knowledge to create the most difficult questions he could think of. The observers committed the fundamental attribution error and did not sufficiently take the quizmaster’s situational advantage and the contestant’s situational disadvantage into account.
Differences in the Fundamental Attribution Error amongst cultures
Significant research suggests that the Fundamental Attribution Error may not be universal across cultures. On average, people from individualistic cultures tend to focus their attributions more on the individual person, whereas, people from collectivistic cultures tend to focus more on the situation (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Lewis, Goto, & Kong, 2008; Maddux & Yuki, 2006).
Ross, Lee D., Teresa M. Amabile, and Julia L. Steinmetz. 1977. “Social Roles, Social Control, and Biases in Social-Perception Processes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (7): 485–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2065.
Skitka, Linda J., Elizabeth Mullen, Thomas Griffin, Susan Hutchinson, and Brian Chamberlin. 2002. “Dispositions, Scripts, or Motivated Correction? Understanding Ideological Differences in Explanations for Social Problems.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2): 470–87. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110.