The Fundamental Attribution Error

Untitled by Logan Campbell

It’s just one of those days. You’re running late, preoccupied by a big presentation you have to give, and trying to coordinate dinner plans with your relatives visiting town. Although your commute is usually easy, today you’re distracted. You start to cross the street when… BEEP! A driver impatiently sounds a car horn as you realize you hadn’t looked around carefully enough before stepping into the crosswalk. “Oops!” you think, “I’m not usually that careless. I’m just so caught up in my thoughts today.” You realize that this instance is a fluke, and you resolve to pay more attention next time.

Later, you’re driving to pick up your relatives from the airport. Just as the traffic light turns green, a pedestrian crosses the street while texting. “Ugh!” you think, “This person is self-absorbed, inconsiderate, and never puts down the phone! People these days! How rude!”

Why don’t we recognize the possible similarity between our own transgression and those of a stranger? The fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to evaluate our own behaviors as situational, while evaluating other people’s behaviors as representative. In other words, we ascribe our own actions to contextual factors (e.g. being preoccupied by a stressful day) because we know our own circumstances, but assume that other people are acting as usual (e.g. are typically texting and walking). Of course, we’re all guilty of making these quick judgments about other people, ignoring the fact that these other people have their own explanations for their behaviors (and can make similar judgments about us!). The next time you jump to conclusions about someone’s actions, try to consider some potential situational causes -- with any luck, it will save you some frustration the next time someone cuts you off on the road!

Ali Horowitz is a PhD student in psychology at Stanford University. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in 2008. She is especially fascinated by language, and how children (and adults!) reason about communication. She also enjoys singing, crafting, and animal documentaries.

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