The fundamental attribution error is ‘the tendency to underestimate the degree to which behavior is externally caused’ (Sabini, Siepmann & Stein, 2001). The fundamental error occurs because of the way that human cognitive machinery works and is not dependent on any motivation (Sabini, Siepmann & Stein, 2001). In the 1950s social psychologists Fritz Heider and Gustav Ichhesiter started to research on the human understanding of the causes of human behavior (Gawronski, 2007). The term fundamental attribution error, however, was created by social psychologist Lee Ross only in 1977 (Gawroski, 2007). Although the peak of interest in the fundamental attribution error was in the 1970s and 1980s (Gawronski, 2007), social research still uses the term to explain economic, political and other types of social behaviors.
Individuals often make the fundamental attribution error in their everyday activities. For example, when an onlooker sees a black teenager on the street who does not speak the standard English, they might attribute this to the teenager’s laziness at school, low cognitive skills or a poor taste. However, the teenager might speak the so called black dialect only in the circle of his friends, where the respective language is valued, and be able to switch easily to the standard English. Apart from this, the teenager might be the first-generation immigrant who has gone through his second socialization in the black community in the US, where the dialect in considered to be the norm. Therefore, in these situations explaining the teenager’s behavior through his laziness or poor cognitive skills is an error.
Together with my knowledge of sociology, changes came to the way I explain people’s behavior. Whilst previously I was making the fundamental attribution error constantly, now I try to take into account the social circumstances when trying to analyze one’s appearance, behavior or attitudes. For instance, in the past, when seeing a homeless person, I would explain his or her status through his or her lack of desire to work and earn money in a way that is socially approved. This tendency to think might be explained by the fact that there is a very strong emphasis in American society on the importance of the so called ‘American dream’ with its focus on the individual’s agency in shaping his or her life. However, I was not always correct with my conclusions. A lot of external factors might explain a person’s loss of a permanent place of living, such as his or her status of refugee, the experience of domestic abuse, or the economic crisis.
Post 1: Response
The author of the post gives a short and concrete definition of the fundamental attribution error. However, it might have been helpful to give more information concerning the history of the term and studies that tested the phenomenon of the fundamental attribution error empirically. Namely, the concept of fundamental attribution error has found its wide application in economic and social research (Studiner, Klein & Kantor, 2015), which demonstrates its usefulness for society-at-large.
The author provides a good example of the fundamental attribution errors that people tend to make in real-life situations by discussing a mother in the park shouting at another parent. In addition to this, the author in their post emphasizes the importance of being aware of the fundamental attribution error in order to decrease the level of prejudice and create a platform for tolerance. Indeed, the fundamental attribution error often reinforces inequality because it creates a discourse that makes social injustices seem legitimate. It has been found, for example, that people tend to attribute homelessness to the characteristics of personality of homeless people (Furham, 1996). However, the problem of homelessness is closely related to a variety of economic and social factors that are often out of individual’s control. The fundamental attribution error might thus be helpful in terms of removing blame from unprivileged and socially disadvantaged categories of population and contributing to the increase in individual’s open-mindness.
Post 2: Response
The author of the post references Gawronksi (2007) to provide a definition of the fundamental attribution error. Whilst the definition itself is informative, it might have been helpful to explain the difference between ‘situational’ and ‘dispositional’ factors to make the definition easier for the audience to understand. The author offers an interesting example of the fundamental attribution error, discussing a three year old child who regularly demonstrates bad behavior. The author argues that whilst the real reason behind child’s misbehavior is close physical proximity to other children, the assistant teacher attributes it to the child’s temperament. Indeed, this is an example of the fundamental attribution error. However, the author also notes that ‘a three year old child cries, kicks, and screams when he separates from his mother every morning’. Proximity to other children cannot explain why the child demonstrates exactly the same behavior the moment that they get separated from their mother. Perhaps this behavior indeed can be explained by the child’s temperament, or there is a need to search for other situational factors that might have caused the respective behavior.
The author also mentions the importance of restraining yourself from making the fundamental attribution error. They argue that ‘even physical attributes can be based on situational factors and one shouldn’t assume it’s neither here nor there’. The author provides an example of a girl wearing a short hairstyle, which might be explained not only by the girl’s feminist beliefs, but also by other situational factors, such as the unpleasant experience of previous hairstyles, diseases, career requirements etc. In addition to this, it is important to note that there are certain social categories that are less or more prone to attribute a person’s behavior to their personality. For instance, Follett and Hess (2002) in their study found that middle aged cohort is less prone to the fundamental attribution error than young and older adults, which can be explained by the higher levels of cognitive complexity demonstrated by middle aged individuals, if compared to other age categories.
- Follett, K. J., & Hess, T. M. (2002). Aging, Cognitive Complexity, and the Fundamental Attribution Error. Journals Of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences And Social Sciences, 57(4), P312.
- Furnham, A. (1996). Attributions for the Increase in Urban Homelessness. Journal Of Social Behavior & Personality,11(1), 189-200.
- Gawronski, B. (2007). Fundamental attribution error. In Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (pp. 367-369) . Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc
- Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). Target Article: “The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research”.Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.
- Shtudiner, Z., Klein, G., & Kantor, J. (2015). Who is responsible for economic failures? Self-serving bias and fundamental attribution error in political context. Quality And Quantity, (Preprints), 1-16.