The Fundamental Attributional Error:

300px-Social_Psychology_Definition_3Almost every day I am grateful that I took that Social Psychology course when I did. Every day I am faced with a situation that I now know I would never have been able to properly deal with if it weren’t for the real eye opener that is social psych; conflict with my doctor, with a random stranger, with a family member or friend. Social psychology is a fast growing branch of Psychology, and a discipline so expansive I could dedicate my life to studying and still only understand and know a small fraction – and I consider myself at least marginally clever. Although this knowledge awards me the humbling task of checking my own biases, human cognition is nothing if not mercurial.

There is one phenomenon that tends to stand above the rest for me, that is the ‘Fundamental Attributional Error‘ (FAE, for short). FAE is just one example of what is called ‘attribution theory (the study of how we infer the causes of other people’s behaviour). Fritz Heider, the patriarch of attribution theory, posited that most people without thinking engage in ‘naive’ or ‘commonsense’ psychology. He says, basically, that we are all amateur scientists, trying to understand other people’s behavior and tying that information into a reasonable explanation – he was intrigued by  how people come to those conclusions.

In general, we don’t always have a very overarching understanding of our environment. In life, it’s rare for anyone to spend most of their time in familiar territory, with controlled conditions. Our environments are always changing, and there are always new, unfamiliar stimuli to process. We tend to think we know ourselves fairly well, and often project that picture onto other people. People generally prefer to attribute internal attributions over external ones. While quite often both are possible, we tend to try to explain things in terms of the person in question, not the environment. It’s possible that we are so focused on the person, that the situation is often overlooked. It is called the Fundamental Attributional Error because even though situational factors obviously could play a role in a scenario, we tend to choose to explain people’s behaviors in terms of internal characteristics; they’re dumb, they’re mean, they can’t drive etc…

Basically, the FAE is a tendency to overstate the value of stable, dispositional personality characteristics (internal factors) to explain observed objective behavior in others, and undervalue situational, environmental factors (external factors). The FAE is often conflated with the ‘Correspondance Bias‘ – which I’ll cover in another post – but the two are very different. Where the correspondence bias looks at attribution in general, the FAE looks for inconsistencies and  bias towards attributing internal versus external factors.

As a general rule, or heuristic (which I’ll cover in another post), we generally tend to put ourselves in the best light possible, while portraying others in a less than favourable one – again, thus putting us in the best light possible. Take that natural law!

for example:

When your teacher hands back a math test during class, you ask your friend what he got; he shows you that he received a C. You automatically find yourself looking for stable, internal factors to explain why he did so poorly; he’s not so smart, he’s not very good at memorizing, he must not be good at math. You over sell things that he has no control over – stable parts of his personality, who he is – while at the same time undervaluing any and all situational factors.

It’s important to remember that most of the time we are left totally in the dark when it comes to another person’s environment. Even if that person is a very close friend, a loved one or even a spouse, we may not know how certain things in their environment affected them, nor are we cognizant of all of the environmental and situational factors that went in to shaping who they are as a person today. So what, if any, information is left?

Perceptual salience is the prevailing factor when it comes to making attributions and falling ‘victim’ to the FAE. Basically it can be defined as ‘information that is the focus of people’s attention’. Functionally, we tend to attach more causal weight to perceptually salient information when making attributions than to any other information. People, not the environment or the situation, are perceptually salient. We see, hear, and smell people, and so its logical to conclude that people, not the environment are the cause of the observed behavior.

In a seminal study by Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske (1975), two participants were asked to take part in a study in which they would engage in a ‘get acquainted’ conversation. The two ‘participants’ were actually research confederates (actors who were in on the study), but seated around the ‘actors’ were actual research participants (observers) asked to watch the conversation and then afterwards briefly fill out a survey. The participants seated around the two actors were strategically placed.

Tayler and Fiske (1975) FAE_edited-1

To demonstrate Perceptual Salience, they asked the observers specific questions after the conversation was completed. Observers C and F reported that Actor B initiated the conversation and ‘took the lead’. whereas Observers A and D reported Actor A chose the topics and lead the conversation. Observers E and B claimed that it was fairly even; both actors engaged eachother and steered the conversation evenly.

As a result of this experiment, we have a better picture of what influences peoples thought processes. The information we select and the information we choose to ignore is the information that is perceptually salient to us.

Finally, we follow a two-step process of attribution when committing the fundamental  attributional error: firstly, we make an internal attribution; we assume a person’s behavior is due to internal factor. Secondly, we attempt to balance that attribution by considering information from the situation the person was in.

However, we often don’t adjust our attributions enough in the second step, and rush to a conclusion. Why? Well because we are often distracted and preoccupied, and because the second step takes conscious effort and work, whereas the first step is reflexive and intuitive.

We can correct our attributional errors and side-step the FAE into more sagacious territory. All we have to do is take a moment to step away from the situation and take in all the information, not just that which is perceptually salient to us. But how many of us have the time or motivation to do that at a red-light when the driver behind honks his horn at you and flips you the bird?

My only advice is this: in very important situations, or in not so important situations with very important people: stop, take a moment and think on all the information before you make a judgement. If you do this, more times than naught, you will find that the opinions you held of people so firmly before, weren’t entirely accurate.

Source: Aronson et al., Social Psychology, 2011.