Fundamental attribution error: blaming people by forgetting the context

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Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
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We tend to think that most events don't happen by accident, but have a logical explanation. That is why we look for reasons that explain the actions of others and our own. We try to find out the causes of their behaviors. This search for causality takes us away from chance and allows us, on the one hand, to make sense of the world and, on the other, to foresee future actions.

Assigning causes to an action is a phenomenon known as “attribution”. In fact, social psychologist Lee Ross claimed that we all behave like "intuitive psychologists" because we try to explain behavior and make inferences about people and the social environments in which they operate.



However, we are not usually "impartial psychologists", but we have a tendency to hold people accountable, minimizing the influence of the context. Then we make the fundamental attribution error or mismatch.

What is the fundamental attribution error?

When we try to explain a behavior we can take into account both the internal factors of the person and the external factors of the context in which that behavior occurs. Therefore, we can attribute a behavior fundamentally to the predispositions, motivations, personality traits and character of the person, such as: "he arrived late because he is lazy", or we can take into account the context and think: "he arrived late because he was a lot of traffic".

Since no person acts in isolation from their environment, the most sensible thing to do to explain behavior is to combine the influence of internal and external forces. Only in this way will we be able to get an idea as objective as possible of all the factors that push someone to act in a certain way.


In any case, most people are victims of a prejudice and tend to overestimate the impact of motivational or disposition factors by minimizing the influence of the context, this is known as a fundamental attribution error.


For example, imagine a situation you have probably experienced: you are driving quietly when suddenly you see a car at high speed overtaking everyone in a somewhat reckless way. The first thing that crosses your mind is probably not exactly flattering. You may think he is a reckless or even drugged driver. But it could be a person who has a life-or-death emergency. However, the first impulse is usually to make judgments about its character, minimizing the environmental variables that could determine its behavior.

Why do we blame others?

Ross believed that we give more weight to internal factors simply because they are easier for us. When we do not know a person or his circumstances, it is easier to infer certain personological dispositions or traits from his behavior than to examine all the possible contextual variables that could influence him. This leads us to hold you accountable.

However, the explanation is much more complex. Ultimately, we hold others accountable because we tend to believe that behaviors are fundamentally dependent on our will. The belief that we are responsible for our actions allows us to assume that we are the managers of our lives, instead of being mere leaves moved by the wind of circumstances. This gives us a sense of control that we are not willing to give up. Basically, we blame others because we want to believe we have complete control over our own lives.


Indeed, the fundamental attribution error also lies in the belief in a just world. Thinking that everyone gets what they deserve and that if they run into difficulties along the way it is because they "sought it out" or did not try hard enough, minimizes the role of the environment and maximizes internal factors. In this sense, researchers at the University of Texas found that Western societies tend to hold individuals accountable for their actions, while Eastern cultures place greater emphasis on situational or social factors.


The beliefs underlying the fundamental attribution error can become very dangerous because, for example, we might blame the victims of violence on them or we might think that people marginalized by society are entirely responsible for its shortcomings. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we can assume that those who do "bad" are bad people because we don't bother to consider contextual or structural factors.

It is therefore no coincidence that the fundamental attribution error is magnified when explanations for negative behaviors are sought. When an event scares us and destabilizes us, we tend to think that in some way, the victim is responsible. The prospect of thinking the world is unfair and some things happening randomly is just too terrifying, as a study conducted at the University of Ohio shows. Basically, we blame the victims for helping us feel more secure and reaffirm our worldview.

This is confirmed by a study conducted by a group of psychologists from the universities of Washington and Illinois. These researchers asked 380 people to read an essay and explained that the topic was chosen at random by flipping a coin, implying that the author did not necessarily have to agree with the content.


Some participants read a version of the essay in favor of labor inclusion policies and others against. Then they had to indicate what the attitude of the author of the essay was. 53% of the participants attributed to the author the attitude that corresponded to the essay: pro-inclusion attitudes if the essay was affirmative and anti-inclusion attitudes when the essay was against such policies.

Only 27% of the participants indicated that they could not know the position of the author of the study. This experiment reveals a blindness to circumstances and a hasty judgment, which leads us to blame others without taking into account the extenuating circumstances.


The fault is yours, not mine

Interestingly, the fundamental attribution error tends to be projected onto others, rarely ourselves. This is because we are victims of what is known as "actor-observer bias".

When we observe a person's behaviors, we tend to attribute their actions to their personality or internal motivation, rather than to the situation, but when we are the protagonists, we tend to attribute our actions to situational factors. In other words, if someone is misbehaving, we assume that they are a bad person; but if we misbehave, it is because of the circumstances.

This attributional bias is not only due to the fact that we try to justify ourselves and keep our egos safe, but also to the fact that we know better the context in which the behavior in question occurred.

For example, if a person bumps into us in a crowded bar, we tend to think they are inattentive or rude, but if we pushed someone, we assume it was because there wasn't enough space because we don't consider ourselves a careless person or rude. If a person slips on a banana peel, we think it is clumsy, but if we slip we will blame the peel. It is simply like that.

Of course, sometimes we can also be the victims of the mismatch. For example, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine found that some rescuers feel great guilt over the large number of deaths that occur after a disaster. What happens is that these people overestimate their power and influence of their actions, forgetting all the variables that are beyond their control in catastrophic situations.

Similarly, we can blame ourselves for the misfortunes that happen to close people, although in reality our control over circumstances and their decisions is very limited. However, attributional bias leads us to think that we could have done much more to avoid adversity, when in reality we have not.

How can we escape the fundamental attribution error?

To mitigate the effects of the fundamental attribution error we need to activate empathy and ask ourselves: "If I were in that person's shoes, how would I explain the situation?"

This change of perspective will allow us to completely change the sense of the situation and the inferences we make about behaviors. In fact, an experiment conducted at the University of the West of England found that verbal change of perspective helps us fight this bias.

These psychologists asked the participants questions that forced them to reverse points of view under different conditions (me-you, here-there, now-then). So they found that people who received this training to change their perspective were less likely to blame others and took environmental factors more into account to explain what happened.

Therefore, we just have to see behaviors in the light of empathy, really putting ourselves in the shoes of the other to try to understand him through his eyes.

It means that the next time we are about to judge someone, we must remember that we may suffer from the fundamental attribution error. Instead of blaming him or thinking he is a "bad" person, we should simply ask ourselves, "If I were that person, why would I do such a thing?"

This change of perspective will allow us to become more empathic and understanding people, people who do not live by judging others, but who have sufficient psychological maturity to understand that nothing is black or white.

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