Home > Aging, Attention, 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.

However, for contestants and observers, they did not take the situational factors of the quiz show, which is how the questions were made, into account. Why? For contestants, the limited attentional resources can play a role in making FAE (Follette & Hess, 2002). Attention is an important resource that helps people to perform better. (Here is another interesting blog about the problem of limited attentional resources. Click here) In the quiz show, contestants need to pay a lot of attention to the instructions and questions in order to get the correct answer. However, people only have limited attentional resources, which makes the contestants more likely to draw inference about other’s knowledge level based on an automatic process. They use their prior knowledge about contestants and questioners, thinking “people who ask questions must be more knowledgeable than people who answer it because questioners always know the answers, but contestants can be wrong.” So, they are less likely to realize the fact that they were answering questions on other’s area of expertise.

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).

Are you ready to apply some knowledge about Fundamental Attribution Error into some real life situations?

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.


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  1. abgrossm
    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!
    Considering situational factors vs. internal factors reminded me of many of the dual process models that we talked about. For example, the dual model proposed to explain the stroop task suggests that there are two competing processes that contribute to whether or not you say the correct word out loud during the stroop task: the automatic reading (word) pathway and the color pathway. In order to correctly identify the color of the word in the stroop task, you need to inhibit the automatic reading pathway and activate the color pathway. Inhibiting the reading pathway is a controlled process that requires attentional control (Stroop, 1935). From what I read in your blog post, it seems as if there might be a similar pattern of processes occurring that lead to people making fundamental attribution error. Maybe considering internal factors is what we do automatically, but then if we are able to inhibit this automatic judgement we are able to focus our attention to consider the situational factors that could be influencing a person’s behavior.
    Your blog post also really highlighted to me how important top down processing is for our interpretation of everyday events. Depending on which of our knowledge and expectations we apply to a certain situation, we could get two very different interpretations of the same event. In class we looked at the example of a picture where an older woman is surrounded by many baby dinosaurs that resemble pigeons if you do not look closely. When you look at the picture quickly, you apply top down processing and expect that the lady is surrounded by birds because your expectation is that the park is not a context where dinosaurs will be present. Therefore, top down processing influences how you interpret events around you. With the fundamental attribution error, which aspects of your prior knowledge and expectations you use for top down processing will influence your interpretation of the events. If you use your knowledge that people who are rude show up late to dinner, you might assume that your friend who showed up late to your house is rude. However, if you take into account the fact that it is 5:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and your friend had to drive through rush hour traffic to get to your house, you might recognize that your friend was not intentionally trying to show up late and was not being rude.

  2. May 4th, 2017 at 09:00 | #2

    Hi, Yipei! I really enjoyed your post! Your discussion about the importance of context also reminded me of top-down processing (see Alessandra’s comment), specifically the Weapon Bias we discussed in class. In the study conducted by Payne (2006), which examined the Weapon Bias, it was found that people were more likely to associate a white face with a tool and a black face with a weapon. Payne (2006) suggested that this was because of stereotypes, a preconceived notion of a group of people. Top-down processing influences how stereotypes were formed. Prior exposure to information (like watching the news) or through previous experiences could lead us to interpret events around us differently. Related back to Payne’s (2006) study, this meant that for some individuals, African Americans were associated with higher levels of crime and violence. Perhaps if more context was provided, participants would more accurately identify if the object proceeding the photo of the face was a tool or a weapon.

    This also reminded me of the Word Superiority Effect. When we are asked to identify a missing letter, we are more likely to recall that letter when it is found in the word rather than in a non-word or isolated. This was because a letter in an actual word would receive both top-down activation (prior knowledge/context) and bottom-up activation (the basic structure/components of the letter) while a letter in isolation or in a non-word would only receive bottom-up activation.

    Your discussion on the Quiz Show was also very interesting. You mentioned that because questioners know their own ability, they were able to take situational factors into account when rating the contestant’s general knowledge. However, because the contestants and the observers were not experts in that particular area of expertise, they could not take into account situational factors. This led them to believe that the questioner was more knowledgeable than the contestant. This reminded me of metacognition. Because the questioners have more expertise in their field, they could formulate more accurate judgments about the contestant’s general knowledge. Meanwhile, because contestants and the observers lack knowledge in the questioner’s area of expertise, they were unable to form accurate judgments about the questioner’s general knowledge or the contestant’s general knowledge. This leads me to my next question, could metacognition be a factor in the Fundamental Attribution Effect?

    Payne, B. K. (2006). Weapon bias: Split-second decisions and unintended stereotyping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 287-291.

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