The Big One: The Fundamental Attribution Error

The most studied bias in social psychology is the fundamental attribution error (FAE, named by Ross, 1977). This bias is very common (especially in Western cultures like the U.S.) when we try to explain the behavior of someone else. (The FAE also goes by correspondence bias – see Gilbert & Malone, 1995.)

driving fast feb 2014Suppose while driving, someone tailgates you, passes you, cuts you off, and speeds away. Why? Pretty simple, usually, right? The driver is an idiot. Well maybe.

After I gave a talk on biases one summer, someone from the audience, J, approached me afterwards and told me how she tailgated someone else quite severely one day. Her reason: because she had just heard that a loved one had a medical emergency, and she was trying to reach her family as quickly as she could. She admitted she was driving recklessly, regretted it, but basically conveyed that it was necessary. But the driver she was tailgating was quite upset apparently, because this other driver followed J home, stalked her for a few hours, and then sent her a scathing, name-calling letter pointing out how stupid and inconsiderate J was. I may not recall the exact details of the letter, but this other driver had committed the FAE.

In the FAE, we overestimate the role of personal characteristics or intentions. Idiot, stupid, inconsiderate. At the same time, we underestimate the possibility of situational factors or specific circumstances. Medical emergency. This other driver seemed quite justified to be upset, and I’m not excusing J’s behavior (see Slogan #2). But this other driver’s explanation for J’s behavior was still off.

The FAE is not, by definition, about explaining a behavior with personal dispositions when actually the cause is situational. It’s rarely that black-and-white. Most behaviors are caused by both dispositional and situational factors. The FAE is about overestimating dispositions and underestimating situational factors. In the above case, J was reckless (by her own account) IN ADDITION TO being under extreme circumstances. But observers who only infer the reckless part are committing the FAE.

Man SmilingWhen someone trips, we may call them clumsy (even if there is a crack in the sidewalk). When someone smiles, we may call them happy (even if the smile was only in response to our smile). When someone shouts at us, we may call them mean (even if they are under extreme stress and normally very lovable). The list of possible examples is endless.

(Btw if someone shouts at you, I am not excusing their behavior just because they are under extreme stress [see Slogan #2: – they should not take their stress out on you! – I am just saying that being mean would not be the whole story – but go ahead and call them “mean” – that’s your call – and sometimes we need to release our emotions in such ways to function…)

Comment Request: Have you ever been misjudged in a way that represents the FAE? In other words, has anyone ever explained your behavior by citing your traits, abilities, beliefs, feelings, inadequacies, or intentions when in fact you know there was a situational factor that contributed to your behavior? (Be as objective as you can.)

Comment Request: Have you ever committed the FAE against someone else? (This question is probably harder for most of us to answer, because it’s harder to see others’ situational factors compared to our own, and because it’s generally hard to acknowledge one’s own bias. But you’re not alone – this is PARBs Anonymous.)



Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). New York: Academic Press.


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