The Fundamental Attribution Error

My wife loves carrot cake more than any other kind of food. To keep it a “special treat,” however, she only allows herself one time per year to eat it. A few years ago, I decided I would surprise my wife by making a carrot cake as part of a celebration for her birthday, which was to take place at her parents’ house the night of her birthday. I bought most of the ingredients and took them to my dad’s house to make the cake and frosting there. I didn’t bring all of the ingredients, though. For example, I didn’t bring any butter because I assumed that my dad would have good butter. The cake looked perfect when it was finished. I brought it to the birthday party and, after dinner, everyone took a piece. I was excited because I had never made a cake from scratch before, and I thought the cake turned out very well. The look on people’s faces when they put the cake in their mouths proved otherwise, however: Complete and utter disgust! It really was the worst cake I had ever tasted. I thought back to what might have happened. I followed the recipe. The cake looked like it turned out. However, I wondered about that butter. Later, I went back to my dad’s house and checked it out. Lo and behold, the butter was full of mold inside! This was how I personally explained my cake failure. Interestingly, however, my in-laws declared that I might better leave the baking to someone else.

One of the most important concepts in the field of Social Psychology is the “fundamental attribution error,” the tendency for observers of others’ behavior to underestimate the impact of the situation and to overestimate the role of personal factors. The key insight that comes from an understanding of the fundamental attribution error is that it’s easier to understand the role of the situation in our own lives because we can observe that situation influencing us. However, when observing others, we notice the persons more than the situations in their lives, and therefore explain their behavior more in terms of their dispositions than situations. This is what happened in my carrot cake story. I recognized the role of the bad butter (a situational factor); my in-laws attributed the cake failure to my poor baking ability (a personal factor).

Almost all of the time, both situational and personal factors explain behavior. However, the fundamental attribution error suggests that we often are selective about what factors we highlight in our minds when we explain behavior. This often causes problems. For example, many students say that they are struggling in school because they can’t study very much, or very well, because of all that they have going on in their lives (a situational factor). However, when asked to explain why a friend is struggling in school, they quickly point out controllable factors such as a lack of time management, lack of self-discipline, and lack of personal responsibility (personal factors). Of course, this mismatch is completely hypocritical. When students overlook how they may exercise control over their academic lives, they fail to consider factors that may lead to improvement. When students attribute others’ difficulties to factors within their control, they necessarily judge and condemn them, making others feel worse and distancing themselves interpersonally in the process.

In these ways, a knowledge of the fundamental attribution error helps individuals to be more effective, humble, and interpersonally gracious to others.

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