The Fundamental Attribution Error
by Rick Brenner
When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
The meeting ran over by about five minutes, just long enough to make most of them late to their 11ams. So the room emptied quickly, leaving Spencer alone with the meeting chair, Lynne. Lynne asked, "Help me take down the flip charts?"
"Sure," he said, "no problem."
"I wanted to talk to you, too," she said. "I really felt that you weren't being very helpful today."
Spencer felt somewhat shocked at first, but then it came to him — it was probably Metronome. Still, he didn't want to let her see that he knew what it was. "Oh? In what way?"
They now had all the flip chart sheets flat on the table, and Lynne sat down in her chair. Spencer sat down across the table from her.
"When you brought up the Metronome interface," she said.
"Oh, that," he said. "It just seemed to me that the rest of the meeting depended on it."
We have a tendency
to explain the behavior
of others in terms of
than contextLynne felt her frustration building. "But I explained all that in my email yesterday. And you went ahead anyway. That's what bothers me."
Lynne has now dug herself into a neat hole. She is assuming that Spencer saw her message, and she feels that he disregarded it. In fact, he never did receive it, and he was unaware of the change in the agenda.
Lynne's error is perfectly human. It's so common that it even has a name — the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). As humans, we have a tendency to explain the behavior of others on the basis of disposition or character, rather than context or the actions of third parties. Probably this happens because we understand the internal motives of others more easily than we understand the complex situations they face. That's reasonable, because we usually have only vague information about how situations look to others.
For example, Lynne was completely unaware that Spencer had been having chronic email problems. Customer reports are routed to a list he has to subscribe to, and his inbox suffers from chronic bloat, which has exposed a bug in the email client they all use. Lynne attributed Spencer's behavior to a deliberate choice, but he might have made another choice if he had been aware of the change in the agenda.
An American Indian proverb captures the idea of the FAE most elegantly: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." To help you remember the Fundamental Attribution Error, get a pair of baby moccasins. Baby shoes will do, too. Put one on your desk or on top of your computer monitor and the other in your car. Only you will know what they mean, because everyone else who tries to figure out their meaning will make the Fundamental Attribution Error. Top Next Issue
For more about the Fundamental Attribution Error, see Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002. p. 160-163. Order from Amazon.com.
For more articles about the Fundamental Attribution Error and its applications, search this site.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Email Happens
- Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
- After the Accolades: You Are Still You
- Have you had a major success lately? Have you become a celebrity in your organization? Are people showering you with accolades? When it happens, we feel great, and the elation does finally come to an end. What then?
- Responding to Rumors
- Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
- Why Dogs Wag Their Tails
- If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: Part II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.
See also Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
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