Think about the last time somebody annoyed you. Maybe your boss shouted at you for something that wasn’t your fault. Did you think something like this?
“She’s so short-tempered.”
“She’s just an unreasonable person.”
“She can’t control her anger.”
If you did, then you could be guilty of making a fundamental attribution error.
What is a fundamental attribution error?
Making a fundamental attribution error means explaining someone’s behavior based on internal factors, like personality type, rather than considering how external factors could have influenced their actions.
For example, if a friend fails to complete his homework on time, you might think, “It’s because he’s so lazy,’ when in reality, your friend might have been working overtime at his second job, leaving him no time for schoolwork.
To help you become more self-aware, check out this list of situations where you might make fundamental attribution errors:
- At work. Especially when we disagree with someone or their behavior damages our own performance.
- With family. We might unfairly judge someone’s character because we think we know them so well.
- In relationships. Arguments can cause us to make rash assumptions about our partner’s personality.
- In public. When we don’t know people well, it’s easy to judge them without considering the reasons behind their actions.
Here are some examples of fundamental attribution errors in our daily lives:
Check out the examples of fundamental attribution errors below, and see if you can recognize yourself in any of the scenarios. If so, don’t worry – it’s 100% possible to change the way you view others.
- When someone hurts your feelings. It’s tempting to make big assumptions about someone’s personality when they’ve hurt you. Try to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
- When dealing with strangers. We’re quick to make snap judgements, often about people we’ve never even spoken to. Next time you see a parent shout at their child in public, try considering the stress they might be under, instead of instantly judging them to be a bad parent.
- When arguing with a partner. Fundamental attribution errors can be really damaging to a relationship, and might make your partner feel unfairly criticised. Have you ever been arguing about a relatively small issue, and said something like, “You’re so thoughtless”, or “You never listen to me”? These dramatic statements are rarely true and often make unfair generalizations about your partner’s behavior.
- When you disagree with someone. When someone presents a point of view you completely disagree with, it’s easy to think, “He’s so stupid.” However, this kind of black and white thinking prevents us from being open to new ideas. It’s also unfair to others.
Why do we make fundamental attribution errors?
There’s a key reason that we make fundamental attribution errors about others, but not about ourselves.
We know the reasons and context behind our own behavior, but other peoples’ motivations often remain a mystery. If you are late to a meeting because you’re caring for a sick family member, you’ll probably go easy on yourself. If a coworker is late, you might assume they slept in or couldn’t be bothered to check the time.
Not knowing the true reasons for someone’s actions significantly affects they way we judge them.
How can you catch yourself before making a fundamental attribution error?
Luckily, it’s possible to stop ourselves before we make fundamental attribution errors. This can help us to be more understanding, build better relationships, and feel less hurt by the actions of others.
Next time you catch yourself making a blanket judgement on someone’s personality, try the following techniques.
Avoid generalizing someone’s behavior
Try not to use words like, ‘always’ or ‘never’ when describing someone’s behavior. Instead of saying to your partner, “You never help with the housework,” try saying something like, “You haven’t helped much with the housework this week.” This feels much fairer and more reasonable.
Look for the best in people
Fundamental attribution errors often occur because we’re assuming the worst of people. We tend to think that other people are selfish, stupid, or thoughtless, while thinking of ourselves as kind and reasonable. Try to see the best in other people, rather than searching for evidence of their flaws.
Make up excuses for peoples’ actions
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see if you can come up for any excuses for their behavior. For example, “She was short with me because she’s tired after caring for a newborn all night,” or “He pushed into the front of the queue because he needs to buy urgent medical supplies.” This exercise helps you to consider all the possible reasons for peoples’ behavior.
Ask the person about their behavior
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Wondering why someone behaved the way they did? Just ask. You might get an answer like, “Sorry, I’d had a long day. I can see that I was wrong.” Be sure to word your question in a constructive, understanding way. Don’t insult the person or make unfair accusations.
How many times have you judged someone unfairly? Use these tips to stop making fundamental attribution errors and start understanding others instead.