Home > Aging, Attention, Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, Memory > Don’t get too personal when it’s the all about the situation: Fundamental Attribution Error

## Don’t get too personal when it’s the all about the situation: Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error (FAE) happens when people explain a behavior of another by drawing inferences about that person’s personalities, dispositions or other internal factors, but underestimate the effect of external factors such as the situation the person is in (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). People often make FAE without realizing it. What are some examples of FAE, why does it happen so often outside our consciousness, and how can we avoid it?

Let’s starts with some examples of FAE. Imagine you are traveling in a foreign country and want to buy souvenirs for your friends. After careful selection, you decide to buy seventeen homemade chocolate bars; each is thirteen dollars. Before checking out, you want to know how much do they cost but you are having a hard time calculating the exact number. Then, the little boy next to you says immediately: “Hey, that’s 221 dollars.”

So you take out the cell phone to check the total; you find out that the boy is correct. What would be your first reaction?

If I were you, I would probably think that boy must be a genius or excellent at math, right? But the reality is that children in their primary school are required to memorize 20*20 multiplication table. Almost all primary school students in that country can immediately know the answer.

Why do we make inference mistakes so often? Here, it is easy to mistakenly confuse intelligence with people’s prior knowledge stored in the long-term memory. The boy calculates fast because he can easily get the answer from his memory (retrieval), which is much more quickly than doing the multiplication algorithm. Logan (1990) introduces the Instance Theory that further explains this phenomenon of automaticity. He proposes that this automatic process is the results of a race between competing alternatives. Here, the previous knowledge about the multiplication question and the procedure of doing the algorithm are two ways to get the desired solution. Once one of the alternatives determines the answer, the race would stop. For the boy, after a lot of practices, the retrieval process for becomes automatic: it is fast, efficient, and outside of people’s conscious awareness, which helps him to get the answer in a very short time. As shown in this example, when looking others’ behaviors, we sometimes tend to put too much emphasis on what we see, but ignore the context that the person is in.

The Quiz Show is a classic example of the FAE (Ross, Amabile & Steinmentz, 1977). Participants were assigned to play roles as either questioners or contestants. In the show, questioners would ask questions based on their area of expertise, and the contestants answered the questions. After the quiz show, all the participants rated the general knowledge about contestants and questioners.

What do you think the results would be? The study suggests that the contestants tend to rate the questioners more knowledgeable than themselves. However, the overall knowledge ratings for contestants and questioners rated by the questioners are approximately the same.

So what are some explanations of this phenomenon and what are some factors influence this error?

In the quiz show, the questioners were able to eliminate the fundamental attribution error and make a more accurate judgment about the general knowledge, because they knew that they were asking questions from their own area of expertise; they were able to take the situational factors into account while rating.

What are other factors that can account for FAE except for the limited attentional resources? Research shows that age can also play a role in the tendency of making FAE. According to a study done by Follette and Hess (2002), middle-aged adults are less likely to make the fundamental attribution error, comparing to young and older adults. Although still making some mistakes, people in their middle age are more apt to consider situational factors while making judgments. Why is this? One explanation is that there is a variation in the complexity of thoughts (Follette & Hess, 2002). The previous study indicates that people in their middle age usually prefer complex rather than simple explanations for attributions, and they have a higher intrinsic motivation to explain the behaviors of others (Follette & Hess, 2002). Another possible explanation is that the availability of cognitive resources differs with age. Older adults might have problems remembering essential details in the contexts. There can be a lack of information to be integrated to draw inference appropriately about the situation. However, this could not explain why young adults are not more likely to make FAE than middle aged people. The potential reason could be that middle-aged people have more experience in the social world, so they have more previous knowledge stored in their long-term memory to help them recognize the need to correct FAE (Follette & Hess, 2002).

Imagine you are driving, then the car in front of you suddenly stops. What would you think?

Here are some ideas regarding the situation. Most people would probably think that the person is crazy and does not know how to drive properly, right? But wait; let’s take the perspective of the driver. What could be his/her situation?

–   Maybe the driver is weird and enjoying stopping and accelerating suddenly during driving.

–   Or maybe a puppy is running across. He stops so that he wouldn’t hurt it.

As an observer, we only see the behavior of the driver in front but do not realize a puppy crossing the street. So we mistakenly believe that the person is “crazy” and “does not know how to drive.”

As we can see, making fewer FAE in life can help us to assess an event more critically and avoid some evitable misunderstandings. However, it is hard control the total amount of our attentional resources, and we can’t manipulate our age (I know). So what can we do?

Research suggests that being mindful can help us reduce FAE (Hopthrow et al., 2016). Mindfulness refers to a focused, non-evaluative attention to and awareness of the present moment (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). In their study, participants engaged in a mindfulness task. They were asked to listen to a short audio, which helps them to slow down and experience eating two raisins with full awareness and attentions to their actions, sensations, and thoughts (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012). Then, their levels of FAE were measured using the standard attitude-attribution paradigm developed by Jones and Harris (1967). Results of the study show that a trained, mindful mindset reduces the tendency to engage in making fundamental attribution errors.

Knowing the existence of the Fundamental Attribution Error is the first step to reducing it. So next time when you have confliction with others, try to see the conflicts more subjectively and consider their situations, rather than judging others’ personalities. For example, next time when your friend shows up late for dinner, don’t say, “Why are you so rude and disrespectful?” Instead, we should focus more on what is the situation and how should he/she adjust next time.

References

Andrews, P. (2001). The psychology of social chess and the evolution of attribution mechanisms: explaining the fundamental attribution error. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(1), pp.11-29.

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Addressing fundamental questions about mindfulness. Psychological Inquiry,18(4), 272-281. doi:10.1080/10478400701703344

Follett, K., & Hess, T. (2002). Aging, cognitive complexity, and the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 57(4), pp.P312-P323.

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin,117(1), 21-38.   doi:10.1037//0033-2909.117.1.21

Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,3(1), 1-24.       doi:10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0

Logan, G. D. (1990). Repetition priming and automaticity: Common underlying mechanisms? Cognitive Psychology, 22, 1-35

Mahmood, L., Hopthrow, T., & Moura, G. R. (2016). A moment of mindfulness: computer-mediated mindfulness  practice increases state mindfulness. Plos One,11(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153923

Maruna, S., & Mann, R. (2006). A fundamental attribution error? Rethinking cognitive distortions. Legal and Criminological Psychology11(2), pp.155-177.

Morris, M. W., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical    events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,67(6), 949-971. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.67.6.949

Norenzayan, A., & Nisbett, R., E. (2000). Culture and causal cognition. Psychological Science.

Ostafin, B. D., & Kassman, K. T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition,21(2), 1031-1036. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.02.014

Ross, L. D., Amabile, T. M., & Steinmetz, J. L. (1977). Social roles, social control, and biases in social-perception   processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,35(7), 485-494. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.35.7.485

Witkin, S. L. (1982). Cognitive processes in clinical practice. Social Work. doi:10.1093/sw/27.5.389

Image references

http://www.vaughns-1-pagers.com/computer/multiplication-tables.htm

http://www.cscc.edu/campus-life/archive/Jan18.2012.shtml

https://www.shutterstock.com/zh/image-vector/cartoon-characters-showing-age-progress-373685179

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1. April 29th, 2017 at 17:40 | #1

I really enjoyed reading your blog post! The fundamental attribution error is so relevant to our interpretation of other’s actions that occur every day without us even realizing we are drawing the conclusions about other people’s actions. I know that I probably draw way too many conclusions about internal factors when I should probably be taking into account the situational factors that are influencing people’s behaviors, so reading your blog post will make me be more aware in the future!