The Fundamental Attribution Error – How We Are Wrong Most of the Time

I work for an organization at Rutgers called Dance Marathon, a student run philanthropy where we raise money for the non medical needs of children with cancers and blood disorders. Dance marathon quickly became the best thing I have ever gotten involved in, and you can check out my personal fund-raising page if you’d like =).

Anyway, one day it was my job to hand out flyers around the food court in our student center, notifying everyone that if they ordered from Wendy’s, 15% of their purchase would go toward kids with cancer. After an hour of bothering everyone that entered the food court, I started getting very frustrated. Some people would take my flyer and consider Wendy’s for dinner, others would say “no thank you” and walk away (I was OK with that), but some people would just walk right past me as if I was invisible, THAT got to me.

After 3 people passed me by with nothing more than a grunt, I started getting frustrated. A fourth guy (tall, looked like he just got back from the gym) unintentionally pushed me over my edge.

Me: “Eat at Wendy’s and help support kids with cancer!”

I point my flyer toward him, he brushes past me not saying a word.

Me: “It’s OK, its just kids with cancer”

He stops walking, turns around and says:

“That’s right, it’s just kids with cancer” and keeps walking.

I was dumbfounded, what a jerk.

Later that week I was texting a friend who also works for DM, telling her about the guy and how upset he made me. Then she said something that completely blew me away, “maybe he was just having a bad day”. I was taken aback, not because she came up with a brilliant solution to his grumpiness, I was amazed because she had overcome the fundamental attribution error, something I rarely see people do. Needless to say, I quickly changed my opinions on this guy.

A good definition is found in Social Psychology & Human Nature, they define the Fundamental Attribution Error as,

“The tendency for observers to attribute other people’s behavior to internal or dispositional causes and to downplay situational causes”

In other words, you are more likely to come out of a situation thinking “He’s a grouch”, “she’s a really good person” or “He has a really bad temper”, without considering things like, she could be having a bad/good day or he might have just found his wife in bed with another man.

For example: You are waiting in line, in the hot sun, for Justin Bieber tickets (God only knows why you are doing this), and somewhere down the line you see a fellow fan turn around and scream at the person behind them. You think to yourself, “That person is a quick tempered lunatic”. However, when the guy behind you, with the big hairy arms, bumps into you FOR THE FIFTH TIME, you quickly turn around and start shouting at him. When asked why you did this, you will most likely complain about the heat and how you don’t like being touched by hairy armed Bieber fans. You attribute your behavior to the environment while attributing other people’s behaviors to their personality.

This is why I love Social Psych. You can take what you learn, and directly apply it to your life. Since learning about this phenomenon in Jussim’s Social Psych class, I try my hardest to bring it into the context of my daily life; I’ll admit that I didn’t in the story above, but I’m only human after all.

Still in the spirit of resolutions, I challenge everyone to try their hardest to stop making snap judgments on people we don’t know very well. Next time you witness someone act a certain way, before you label them as a drunk, a bitch or even a saint; realize that you are committing the FAE. Try to take the environment and their mood into consideration before you characterize their personality. We could all become better people because of it.


Photo Credit: atsoram

Baumeister, Roy Bushman, Brad. (2008) Social Psychology & Human Nature. United States; Thomson Wadsworth.


About thepsychconvert

I have a few passions and a hundred hobbies. I often wish there was more time in the day.
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4 Responses to The Fundamental Attribution Error – How We Are Wrong Most of the Time

  1. SweetB says:

    Damn! More greatness from you. I think you should be a teacher because you do a fantastic job of explaining Psychology. Also, I have bookmarked your pledge page and will be donating soon. Keep up the great writing. I have been telling everyone I know about you.


    • The dream is to become a professor =) this is sort of practice for me. Plus I love doing it which is great. The more people that read my stuff the more excited I get and I hope it will carry strong through the semester (it should)

      Thanks for the comments that make me ever increasingly happy,


  2. Hanna Wilbur says:

    I just shared it. Even though I am in the communications field (Faculty of Communications) but I have a lot of friends in psychology. It is an interesting subject and it is very interrelated with what I’m learning.

  3. predederva says:

    Ahh this is something we all do. Very interesting post. At least know we should be a little more aware of ourselves when we do it, and question “wait are they really a jerk? Maybe they’re having a bad day or something”.

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