The Fundamental Attribution Error: Are All Drivers Idiots?

Updated on November 16, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, publishes on topics in psychology, health, behavioral science and social science among others

How many times have you been in the car, minding your own business, trying like a safe driver, relaxing, listening to a favorite song when WHAM! Someone turns out of a side street right in front of you. You slam on your breaks, coffee goes flying, all the stuff neatly organized for that day lands on the floor. And the person who cut you off? They just keep going, not even noticing how close they’d come to causing an accident al while leaving you yelling and screaming.

A Personal Example of the Fundamental Attribution Error

A similar experience happened to me this week during a rainstorm. I’m convinced that whenever it rains and I have to get to work there is a conspiracy in operation carried out by the other drivers on the road. This time as usual I end up behind a car traveling at 10 miles an hour. My immediate response, “For God’s sake what is the matter with you? I have to be somewhere!”

I pass in a skid of water, annoyed at their thoughtlessness. Then, before I can get up much above 20 a car turns out in front of me – another 10 mile an hour driver.

“Move. Move,” I say loudly as if they can hear. I try to pass only to realize there’s a truck heading for me in the other lane so I’m stuck. “Would you move already?” I readdress the car in front of me. “Why can’t you just turn off? There’s a street right there. What’s the matter with you? It was a perfectly good street!” I fail to consider the possibility that the street doesn’t lead to where they are going.

Somehow I manage to pass that car also at some point only to find myself behind a car going 20. I clench my teeth, but I know I can pass right up ahead. Or so I think.

“No!” I scream as a car pulls out in front of the one going 20 miles an hour, only it’s doing 10 miles an hour so the car in front of me hits their brakes as do I, all the while shouting about the various defects each driver clearly possesses.

I won’t take you through the whole drive but just assume it was more of the same - me fuming and yelling insults at the drivers who won’t drive the way they should so I can get to work on time.

I enter in a whirlwind and all because I had been surrounded by a cast of the stupidest, most selfish, craziest idiots on the planet. If it hadn’t been for them, things would have gone just as I’d planned.

Coincidentally, when I get to the classroom, before the lecture starts a student asks if I can explain the Fundamental Attribution Error as he hadn’t understood it in the book. I just stare at him for a minute, then think, “Oh boy, can I ever explain it. With examples.”

Realizing that was exactly what I’d just been engaging in, I felt chagrined. But then I soothed myself by pointing out that it does have the word fundamental at it’s beginning so it must be something we all do.

What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. Of course when our own behavior is less than perfect we believe that’s because of the situation we’re in not anything having to do with us personally, (Druker, 2010). This bias is most likely to occur when the behavior in question can be viewed negatively.

In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what another person does is based more on what "kind" of person he is, rather than the social and environmental forces influencing them. This default assumption often leads to erroneous explanations for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is much less likely to occur when people evaluate their own behavior.

A Classic Demonstration of the Fundamental Attribution Error:Jones and Harris (1967)

In an early study which demonstrating the fundamental attribution bias, subjects listened to pro- and anti-Fidel Castro speeches. Subjects were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of both. Results showed that when the subjects believed that the speech makers freely chose which position to take (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who gave the pro-Castro speeches as having a more positive attitude toward Castro.

However, when the subjects were specifically told that the speech makers gave either a pro- or an anti-Castro speech based solely on the result of a random coin flip, the subjects still rated the people who gave the pro-Castro speeches as having a more positive attitude towards Castro than those giving anti-Castro speeches.

Thus, even when subjects were aware that the speeches given were assigned randomly not on personal opinion, they committed the fundamental attribution error when it came to judging the motivation behind pro or anti-Castro attitudes of the speech makers.

The fundamental attribution error is enhanced when people's actions are attributed to random assignment
The fundamental attribution error is enhanced when people's actions are attributed to random assignment

An Everyday Example of the Fundamental Attribution Error

You are walking up to a cashier at the grocery store to check out. Before you can get there a harried looking older man with two children who are yelling for candy bars, tugging on his coat, then take off towards the gumball machines right by the store entrance, cuts directly in front of you, arriving to pay the cashier before you. What are your assumptions about the man?

You might respond by grumbling, thinking "What an incredible jerk!" You might give him a dirty look hoping he catches it and moves behind you. Depending on how fumed you are you might even say something directly to him like “Apparently you didn’t notice I was before you and perhaps no one told you it’s rude to cut in line.” The bottom line is that your default assumption is likely that the person is ill-mannered and rude.

Yet could there be other less negative and more understandable reasons for his behavior? For example, what if you learn that the man never saw you. That he is a grandfather trusted with two unruly grandchildren for the day, and his attention had been focused on keeping the two children with him fearing something could happen to them if they run from sight. This is while he is also attempting to keep them under control and resist their demands and pleas for candy—a definite rule set down by his daughter all while attempting to reach the cashier. Thus, your dispositional attribution for his behavior was, in this instance, incorrect. The man simply did not see you as his attention was focused on keeping his grandchildren safe.

Why Does the Fundamental Attribution Error Occur?

Jones & Nisbett, (1971), provided the initial theory to explain these biases. Termed the Actor-Observer Bias, they suggested that these errors are based on an individual’s perspective. When we focus on others behavior, the person is the primary reference point as we don’t have others and have no information about their situation. When we focus on our own behavior, we are more aware of what external forces may be influencing us. This is because we know the details of our own situation. So, our explanations for other people’s behavior are more likely to focus on the person we are observing instead of the any possible situational forces that may be influencing their behavior in ways we are unaware of. Instead when we are explaining our own behavior this is reversed.

More recent social psychology research has determined that there are two other explanations for the Fundamental Attribution Error that clarify and add to the theory presented above (Gilovich et al., 2013).

The first of these explanations suggests that people are more salient than the environment. It has been shown that we are more likely to attribute causation to what can be observed and is more salient rather than what is unobserved and less salient effect. Since people are more salient and the environment is less salient, we are more likely to attribute causation to an observable actor who is part of the event rather than the situational factors related to the event (Granot & Balcetis, 2013)

The second of these explanations has to do with comfort, predictability and justice. This explanation is known as the Just World Hypothesis (Montada & Lerner, 2013). Studies have shown that when unexpected events occur, people feel more comfortable when they attribute someone’s behavior to their character traits rather than situational factors (Gilovich et al., 2013).

When we observe unpredictable and unexpected events, we fear that these events may happen to us as well. The idea that an exceptional candidate could lose a job to a mediocre candidate or that someone’s spouse could be murdered in random violence is frightening when we believe that these things could occur to anyone at any time. They are much less threatening when we believe that there was something wrong with the job candidate or the person’s spouse did something to cause them to be murdered.

Recent theories suggest that these explanations likely work together to create the Fundamental Attribution Error (Bob, 2018). These studies suggest that there isn't a single explanation for this bias but rather, that different situations lead to differences in the reason the attribution error occurs. It is also possible that in some situations, these explanations might occur independently of each other while in other situations they may occur simultaneously.

How to Reduce These Errors

A number of "debiasing" techniques have been found effective in reducing the effect of these errors have been proposed by Lilienfeld, Ammirati & Landfield, (2009). These include the following:

  • Watch out for overgeneralizing which may be indicated by using words like always and never when explaining others behavior.

  • Take heed of "consensus" information. If most people behave the same way when put in the same situation, then the situation is more likely to be the cause of the behavior.

  • Ask yourself how you would behave in the same situation.

  • Look for unseen causes focusing on factors you would not normally take notice of.

  • Regarding your own behavior, reflect on whether it was truly just the situation or if something about you may have contributed to the problem.

  • Try reality testing. Run the situation by close friends or relatives and get their feedback. You may learn some important things about yourself you hadn’t or didn’t want to realize.

  • When all else fails, simply ask the person why they are behaving the way that they are instead of making assumptions.

References

Bobb, A. (2018). How does the human mind work? Cognitive biases in everyday life. Euromentor Journal, 9(1), 55-66.

Druker, M., (2010, March 15). The Fundamental Attribution Error in Transportation Choice. Psystenance.com.

Granot, Y., & Balcetis, E. (2013). Fundamental attribution error. The Encyclopedia of Cross‐Cultural Psychology, 2, 576-578.

Jones, E. E. and Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1-24.

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

Montada, L., & Lerner, M. J. (Eds.). (2013). Responses to victimizations and belief in a just world. Springer Science & Business Media.

Questions & Answers

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      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        2 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

        I like your suggestion, Liz. It's always good to work on being a little more lenient and generous in thoughts, speech and actions regarding others. Thanks for commenting.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        2 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

        I agree with you Pamela, things happen for a reason. Your point about when we are most likely to make snap judgments and negative ones to boot about others is a good one. When our patience is short we are most likely to lash out at others whether it is made known to them or not. Good intentions seem to only work when we are already in a good mood and indeed can fly out the window when our mood is not so good. Thank you for reading and for the comment. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        2 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

        Thanks for the comments, Dora. I'm glad the information was presented in an understandable manner and that you found you could relate to it. I'm not sure if you celebrate Thanksgiving but if so have a wonderful holiday.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        2 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

        Your example is pretty amusing though underscores your point perfectly. The assumptions we make about others attributing causes for the behavior based on who we think they are can be way off the mark. Yet if someone does this to us we are quick to get upset. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and that it hit home for you. Thanks for the comment. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        I relate a lot to what you say in this article. Is the moral of the story that we should all be a little more lenient, thoughtful and considerate towards others?

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        It is interesting how you had the horrid drive to work before answering the young man's question about attribution. It is easy to make quick assessments about another individual, particularly when they cut in line at the grocery store or on the highway. The studies you included were so interesting as well.

        Your article gives us something to consider. I try not to rush to judgment, yet when I am running late for something, too tired or even too hungry the good intentions can fly right out the window.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        4 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        You explained and illustrated this concept very well. Your everyday example is so relatable and your tips on reducing the error are very helpful. Good read!

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James-MizBejabbers 

        4 weeks ago from Beautiful South

        Marie, your traffic example hit me squarely between the eyes. When I was a thirty-something "hot" driver, one day I went around a guy driving 20 mph in a 45 mph zone. Then I got caught by a traffic light. I glanced up in my rear-view mirror just in time to see him making strange motions as his Plymouth crashed into the rear of the Buick I was driving, caving it in. The guy's brakes had gone out, and instead of calling a tow truck, he was trying to get his brakeless vehicle home. That certainly changed my impression of creeping drivers. Now I think twice about passing around and getting in front of a slowly moving vehicle. LOL

        "The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior."

        This is a good article, and I especially agree with your quote above. Sometimes we generalize and tar people with the same brush, to speak. Many times our first impressions can be wrong impressions. Occasionally, a person just doesn't know how to make a good impression, and one has to get to know him to understand what a good Joe he really is.

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