What’s in a Word? The Fundamental Attribution Error in Verbal Decoding

word being spoken

In a previous post, I discussed the risks in thinking you could read someone’s mind based on their facial expressions and other nonverbal behavior. Indeed, Nicholas Epley (2014), author of Mindwise, referred to nonverbal decoding as an “illusion of insight.”

What about someone’s word choices? Certainly we can know what someone is thinking or feeling based on the particular words they use, right? Many social scientists seem to think so.

David Myers, a popular author of psychology textbooks, has consistently written that the labels we use to describe someone or something necessarily reflect our values and views. Myers wrote…

“Whether we label a quiet child as ‘bashful’ or ‘cautious,’ as ‘holding back’ or as ‘an observer,’ conveys a judgment…Whether we call public assistance ‘welfare’ or ‘aid to the needy’ reflects our political views.” (Myers, 2013)

What about group labels, such as “Black” versus “African American,” “homosexual” versus “lesbian/gay,” “mentally retarded” versus “developmentally disabled,”…?

According to some prejudice researchers, if you use the “wrong” label and make someone uncomfortable or sad or angry, you would be guilty of a “microaggression.” Even positive adjectives can be risky when applied to certain races. For example, for many microaggression researchers, referring to a Black individual as “articulate” reflects a subtle bias or negative view against Black individuals in general (e.g., Sue, 2010).

Eric Shiraev and David Levy, authors of a cross-cultural psychology textbook, even provided a mind-reading exercise in which two different speakers used two different sets of labels. The authors then directed readers to…

“Notice how the words they [the two different speakers] use reveal their own subjective points of view.” (Shiraev & Levy, 2013)

At the risk of my own mind-reading, the unqualified words “notice” and “reveal” seem to carry a near-telepathic quality.


Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, had earlier asserted with co-author Patrick Malone a counter-mind-reading perspective. The authors wrote that other people’s character, beliefs, and intentions are “hidden from view”…

“As such, people are forced into the difficult business of inferring these intangibles from that which is, in fact, observable: other people’s words and deeds. When one infers the invisible from the visible, one risks making a mistake.” (Gilbert & Malone, 1995)

The mistake to which Gilbert and Malone (1995) referred was the fundamental attribution error, in which one overly infers personal dispositions and underestimates the power of the situation. People often behave and speak in particular ways due to situational factors and not (or not only) due to their personal characteristics or views.


The Converse Error

It is true that personal views often cause one to use certain labels. That relationship appears to be what drives so many social scientists to think we can mind-read. But even if that relationship were always true, it is technically illogical to assume the reverse, that use of certain labels reflects one’s personal views. To assume the reverse is referred to as the “converse error” (or “affirming the consequent”). Just because A implies B does not mean that B implies A (e.g., Bennett, 2012).


Okay, so what are the other possible causes for why someone would use a particular label?


Other Possible Causes

  1. Exposure to information

Groups sometimes provide information about appropriate labels. For example, some LGBT sites and organizations state that “homosexual” is not appropriate. “Lesbian” or “gay” should be used instead. But what if an individual didn’t get that memo? Or what if an individual tried to self-educate at a different site that did not provide that direction? Not being exposed to the “right” sites or literature is one possible cause for using the “wrong” label.

magnifying glass

Perhaps insufficient exposure can be called “ignorance,” but there is a situational component to it, especially as a cultural issue is evolving. Hypothetically, one can move from one locale to another within the U.S. and suddenly be accused of hurtful language for using a label that was appropriate at one’s previous location.

And imagine what can happen when going from one country to another. Is it up to the traveler to learn the politically correct language of the country being visited, or is it up to the citizens of the country being visited to give the traveler some leeway?

  1. Peer pressure

Another situational factor that can affect language is essentially peer pressure. We (not all of us) tend to adopt the lingo of our peer groups (sometimes under social duress), independent of whether we share our peers’ views. That’s Conformity 101. Peers can include coworkers, friends, classmates, or fellow attendees at a social-cause event.

  1. Pleasing your audience

More generally, the words we use can be about pleasing a particular audience, whether peers or an actual auditorium audience or just one person in a private conversation. And “pleasing” can include a bad attempt to be funny. Even using the “right” label can reflect who the audience is and not necessarily the absence of prejudice.


  1. Anti political correctness

Sometimes the point is to displease. In a society growing increasingly concerned about politically correct language, some individuals might feel pressure to conform and might therefore go the other way. They might use the politically incorrect label on purpose, not because of ignorance or prejudice but to voice a complaint about society’s pressure to be politically correct. Doing the opposite of what’s directed can also be about asserting one’s free will in a process known as reactance (Myers, 2013). There are even anti-politically-correct t-shirts and bumper stickers. (!)


Explaining does not mean excusing

Keep in mind Slogan #2 – explaining does not mean excusing (see https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/slogans/). I’m not trying to excuse anybody. If a person hurts you with a label, even if some of these other explanations are in play, I’m not saying that this person should be excused. That’s really your call.

But it is not necessary that what’s behind the label is a negative intention, or even an unintended and unconscious bias.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes when a person hurts you with a label, this person does hold a negative or subtly biased view of you or your group. Maybe it’s most of the time. But it’s possible and under-considered that other causes are also in play.




Bennett, B. (2012). Logically fallacious: The ultimate collection of over 300 logical fallacies. eBookIt.com.

Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: How we understand what others think, believe, feel, and want. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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

Myers, D. G. (2013). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Shiraev, E. B., & Levy, D. A. (2013). Cross-cultural psychology: Critical thinking and contemporary applications (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


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