The Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is one of several attribution biases that systematically distort attributions. Also known as the correspondence bias, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency of observers to make internal attributions (attributing cause to the actors’ motives, attitudes or actions) when perceiving or explaining the observable behavior of others.

The correspondence bias is merely another way of understanding the fundamental attribution error. It defines the way that observers make assumptions about a social actor’s personality and personal characteristics, even when the inference is not justified due to certain situational factors.

Psychologists observed this attributional bias in several studies on attribution, including a 1977 experiment conducted by Ross, Amabile and Steinmetz. Even Fritz Heider (1958), recognized that observers tend to wholly or partially ignore situational factors when explaining the behavior of others.

For example, if you observe that a speaker is nervous before a crowd; your tendency may be to attribute this to the personality of the speaker. You may discount that the speaker is unaccustomed to speaking in front of others or that the crowd is far larger than that which the speaker is normally comfortable. Hence, you might overestimate dispositional factors and underestimate the role of situational factors in the observed behavior (nervousness).

The fundamental attribution error is the result of cultural, linguistic and cognitive factors. One of the functions of attribution- and errors associated with it- is for observers to maintain a world-view where they remain in control. Social psychologist, J.G. Miller, posits that this error can be a defense mechanism aimed at coping with human vulnerability. By making attributions- particularly negative ones- about others, we deny the extent of our vulnerability to negative situations and occurrences.

The cognitive approach suggests that humans and human behavior are far more distinctive and recognizable to us than obscure or complex situations. Observers feel more comfortable judging and guessing the internal motives of others. Often, because the information about situational factors is not available or difficult to process, observers may understate their influence in the observed behavior.

The cultural explanation for the fundamental attribution error suggests that whether a culture is individualistic or collective influences the frequency of this attributional bias. As such, an observer from an “individualist” culture (like America) is far likelier to make the fundamental attribution error compared to an observer from a “collectivist” culture (like China).

The fundamental attribution error is not necessarily inevitable, since it generally describes a “tendency”. There are times when observers make attributions based on situational factors- particularly when prior expectations are different or the mood of the observer is negative.

Below are two helpful links on the fundamental attribution error: