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May 5, 2004 Volume 4, Issue 18
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The Fundamental Attribution Error


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."

A moccasin"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
character rather
than context
Lynne 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Hot and Cold Running People  Next Issue
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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.

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
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At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

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