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What is a Fundamental Attribution Error and Why Does it Get Us in Trouble?


Mary is always late for work, so she must not care about her job.  Chet takes too many breaks.  He is lazy.  Your son still has not cleaned his room after you told him to do so twice.  He is ignoring you.  Do any of these sound familiar?  If so, you are normal.  In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. It is the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.  We attribute their behaviors (what they do or say) to their personality and "underattribute" them to the situation or context.  Stay with me, and I promise I will clean this up for you.

To clarify, we label people because of their behaviors.  Yet when we do something similar, we justify the negative behavior.  As a business coach, I see FAE regularly.  Success comes from recognizing FAE in our own lives to avoid attaching labels to unwanted behavior.  This skill must be practiced and learned over time. 

Tom leads a manufacturing operation in Arizona.  He takes pride in being a student of leadership.  He cares deeply about the business and wants the team to be successful.  Tom is a top performer and maintains high-expectations for his team.  Mary is Tom's production foreman, and she reports directly to him.  Lately, Mary has been less vocal about problems and quiet during meetings.  Tom senses something has changed about Mary but cannot quite figure things out.  Her performance is still effective, but Tom knows something is different.  Thought gremlins start working on Tom's mind.  They have him searching for a label to explain the situation.  He thinks Mary is looking for another job.  Or, Mary no longer matches his intensity for excellence about work.  Tom seeks to find a label because of fundamental attribution error (FAE).

FAE is a common type of cognitive bias.  Yes, we get another bias to talk about this week.  Sociologists call this a root bias.  In other words, our brain is searching for a solution to explain the behavior change.  FAE is a root bias because it can lead to other bias tendencies in our minds.  Mary is a woman in a production plant full of mostly male workers.  That is a fact.  Stop!  If you are not careful at this point, your brain can easily insert another bias when you think about your next thought.

We desperately desire to understand the reason for other's behavior.  The need to solve the riddle of human thought is tempting.  Here is an example.  The person in front cut you off in traffic.  You call them an idiot.  Your mind tells you only an idiot would cut someone off.  They must be an idiot.  That quickly, FAE has happened.  However, when you cut someone off in traffic, you think they should have noticed your blinker and gave you space.  You need to turn soon and must be in that lane.  You justify when you do it and blame when others do the same.

I am going to give you a "Jedi Mind Trick" for overcoming FAE.  You can do this!

Do or do not.  There is no try. ~Yoda

To avoid FAE, put yourself in another person's place.  Look for justification in other's behavior.  Your customer is late paying this month's bill.  Instead of defaulting to judgement, identify legitimate reasons for someone being late with a payment. To make this easy for you, I recommend searching for a minimum of three reasons.  First, the bill may have been lost in the mail.  Next, they have been swamped and must have inadvertently overlooked the invoice, and finally, their accounting person may be on Spring Break.  For some reason, I cannot explain, three legitimate reasons seem to overcome the powerful urge to judge others by negative behavior.  It makes it easier to conclude they must have legitimate grounds for the behavior.

Your daughter is more tense and short-tempered lately.  Instead of labeling her, search for three reasons in your mind.  She is under stress preparing for an exam.  Her best friend (BFF) just moved away.  She is waiting for a prom date.  I am not suggesting you tolerate bad behavior.  However, when bad behavior couples with guessed judgment, it is a recipe for disaster.  You may use a coaching technique to understand her emotional state better.  I call this labeling.  Labels are conversation gateways and need not be accurate to be effective.  Following is an example of a label.  It seems like you are under stress about this exam. By leading with a label, you can listen and better understand her current reality.

FAE is all around us as humans.  If you watch for it, you will see it in most people because we all do it from time to time.  We are human.  By observing it, you will get better at avoiding it in your own life.  Baby steps to change as leaders are what make us better.  Change is a dial, not a switch.