The fundamental attribution error is a mental shortcut that involves explaining another person’s behavior in terms of their personality (rather than attributing their behavior to a situational context).
We use the fundamental attribution error because it is easier to think about something in terms of a person’s personality rather than the complex situation from which their behavior emerged.
In this sense, it is a cognitive shortcut that makes our thinking efficient.
It is also used because we often do not have detailed information about another person’s history or the various situational factors involved.
There are many examples of the fundamental attribution all around us. We may see poor people as lazy or unmotivated. Or, someone we meet for the first time seems cold and distant so we conclude they are a rude person.
Definition of Fundamental Attribution Error
Although there is some debate about who first identified the fundamental attribution error, Ross (1977) offered a very straightforward definition:
“The tendency for attributers to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behavior” (p. 183).
This cognitive bias has been well-researched over the years. Interestingly, it turns out that people from an individualistic culture are more inclined to engage in the fundamental attribution error than those from a more collectivist one (Miller, 1984).
Examples of Fundamental Attribution Error
1. Getting Cut-Off in Traffic
When we get cut off in traffic, we might be inclined to yell profanities at the person and call them all sorts of names: “this person is terrible!” In this situation, we’re extrapolating from a one-off behavior and assigning them a personality based upon an isolated instance.
Nothing is more irritating than getting cut-off in traffic. Not only can it cause a serious accident and send people to the hospital, it is just bad driving etiquette. If you are like most people, you might be inclined to make a few comments about the person that just cut you off.
One common remark might be that the other person “is a bad driver.” If we analyze that comment what we see is that we are assigning a long-term attribute to someone based on one instance of their behavior. We know nothing about the person and definitely don’t have access to their driving record, but yet we have inferred that they possess the disposition of being a bad driver.
However, maybe they were just trying to avoid an accident. Or, perhaps a dog ran into the street and so they swerved out of the way.
2. A Bad First Day at Work
A person’s first day at work is a stressful time. They’re likely to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their regular personality due to the situation.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong on your first day at work. The new employee doesn’t know how things are usually done. Even finding where various departments are or understanding basic office customs can be a challenge.
Of course, it is understandable if someone might begin to feel a bit frustrated. That frustration might even boil over to an outright display of irritation that doesn’t help at all.
Our tendency to engage the fundamental attribution error would lead us to conclude the behavior of the “new guy” has internal attribution, i.e. that they aren’t a person that handles stress very well. These are both assigning dispositional qualities to someone based on a very small sample of their behavior.
3. The Angry Server
Anyone who has worked serving behind a bar or at a restaurant knows that serving rude people all day can take a toll. Yet, if a server finally cracks and snaps back, they’re assumed to be a rude person.
In this instance, the server shouldn’t be seen as a rude person for the rest of their life necessarily! Rather, a sympathetic interpretation would attribute the behavior to the situation (they’re sick of being treated poorly) rather than the personality of the person.
The server may, in fact, be very laid-back and has managed to absorb a lot of negativity for a long time until, as a one-off, they finally snapped and got upset. I’m sure most people would agree that this isn’t a true reflection of the person’s longer-term personality traits.
4. Entrepreneurs with the Golden Touch
Often if an entrepreneur has had one successful business, they can get very easy access to investor funds for future ventures.
The assumption of the investors is that the entrepreneur is an “excellent businessperson” who has the golden touch.
This is a fundamental attribution error because they’re making assumptions about the personality of the entrepreneur (they’re supposedly a great businessperson) rather than examining their business plan to see if it’s genuinely on solid foundations.
The same happens in reverse: if an entrepreneur’s startup business fails, chances are they’ll struggle to get funding for the next one. Here, there have been assumptions made about the businessperson’s personality without examining why the first business idea failed.
5. Poor People are Lazy
This is the quintessential fundamental attribution error. When we meet a poor person, we assume they’re lazy rather than attributing it to situational factors in their lives.
Driving by a food kitchen for the homeless can give us a view of another world. We can see others that are struggling to survive and at the worse times in their lives.
A lot of us might conclude that they are homeless because they are lazy, or perhaps because they are convicted criminals that no one wants to hire. These are all examples of the fundamental attribution error.
We have given an explanation for their predicament without knowing anything about them or their situation at all. If we were to do a little investigation, we just might discover that some of them were victims of pension fraud and so they lost all of their savings right after their company downsized and laid off thousands of managers.
The fundamental attribution error can make our explanations for the world around us a bit simplistic and at times far too harsh.
6. Being Late for a Job Interview
Nothing starts an interview off on the wrong foot than being late. It creates a bad first impression, especially given the importance of the situation, and could lead the interviewer to make assumptions about your personality.
If the person conducting the interview is like most of us, then they may conclude that the applicant is “not a punctual person.” That can also lead to the conclusion that they are irresponsible and unreliable. Ouch. None of that is helpful to someone looking for employment.
If truth be known however, the applicant got stuck in traffic because of a crash between two large delivery trucks. Or, maybe they had to take their first-grader to school and that was the morning he decided to throw an extended temper tantrum because he wasn’t allowed to wear his Batman costume.
There could be a lot of very reasonable explanations for someone being late, none of them involving dispositional characteristics.
7. Blaming the Victim
Sometimes, people will try to explain a victim’s situation by saying that it was their personality that got them into that situation. For example, we might say a girl was accosted because of the clothing she was wearing.
When enduring a great injustice there is nothing worse than having others point the finger at us and say we deserved it. It is adding insult to injury in its ugliest form.
Unfortunately, this can happen a lot. There is a tendency for people to assign blame to the victim of a crime. It has been a well-documented phenomenon in the social sciences for decades.
If a person gets mugged in an alley at night, some might say that only a fool would take that path to their car. If a colleague gets scammed in a stock market venture, then we might say they deserved it for being a greedy person.
These are very unpleasant, and unfortunate, examples of the fundamental attribution error.
8. Drinking Too Much at a Party
If the first time someone meets you you’ve had too much to drink at a party, chances are this first impression is going to last! They might not take into account situational factors.
Everyone loves a good party. Having a few drinks with friends or colleagues is a great way to release a little stress. Let’s say a friend invites us to a party on Friday evening thrown by someone we don’t really know. Of course, we say yes because it is a great way to make new friends.
You stay late at work to get a few extra things done before the weekend. About an hour after at the party you start to feel a bit queasy. We all know what happens next.
This situation is ripe for the fundamental attribution error. One person remarks to their friend that you are a lightweight. Another person comments that you drink too much.
However, what really happened is that you didn’t stop to eat after work and drank on an empty stomach. That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, and one that involves a situational factor.
9. Trying a New Recipe When Meeting the Parents
The first meal you cook for someone is likely to have high stakes. If it works out, you’re instantly assumed to be an amazing chef. Otherwise, you might be seen as no good at cooking – and the assumption will stick!
Dating can be so much fun. The excitement of meeting someone new and learning about them can be a wonderful process. If the stars are aligned, you might just get lucky and find your soulmate.
Eventually that means meeting each other’s parents. So, because you are an excellent cook, you invite them over prepare a delicious meal that is native to their homeland. After spending a lot of time researching different recipes you find one that seems perfect.
Unfortunately, the meal is a complete disaster. It happens.
Although your partner knows you are a great cook because you have cooked for her before, her parents have a different opinion. Instead of considering the multitude of situational factors that might explain the horrible meal, they conclude that you “shouldn’t quit your day job.”
It is a clear indictment of what they consider to be a skill that you do not possess. It’s also an example of the fundamental attribution error.
10. Cultural Misunderstandings
When we travel, sometimes our impression of the culture is clouded by lack of cultural understanding. When this happens, we can erroneously attribute culturally normal behaviors as ‘rude’.
Traveling abroad can be the adventure of a lifetime. Not only do we get to see a new land and taste different cuisine, we also get to explore an unfamiliar culture and learn new ways of thinking.
That all sounds great. If we are not careful however, it can also mean that we experience some cultural misunderstandings as a result of the fundamental attribution error.
For example, in some countries it is not customary for a server to place a glass of water on the table or be emotionally expressive with patrons.
This can easily lead to tourists concluding that people in that country don’t like foreigners. This may not be true at all. It is just that the culture prescribes a different way of interacting between restaurant servers and customers. In this case, the behavior of the server leads to a scaled-up version of the fundamental attribution error.
11. Failing Exams at School
If someone we know is not doing well at school, we might conclude that they are just not a very smart person. “Not a very smart person” is an explanation that ascribes an enduring characteristic in the person. It is dispositional and signifies a long-term stable trait.
In reality however, there may be a multitude of other explanations, all of which are situational.
For example, maybe the person is living in a home environment that is stressful and makes it difficult to concentrate on studying. Perhaps that person is just not interested in academics and has a long-term goal involving sports instead. Or, maybe they are suffering from dyslexia and don’t know it yet.
The point is that there are many possible explanations for their poor academic performance other than a lack of intelligence. Unfortunately, the fundamental attribution error makes us not very understanding of others.
12. The Bad Mother
Too often, mothers are blamed and accused of being bad parents because their child is screaming or the mother has been very stern with her child.
This is an unfair assumption that outside observers make when watching on. Often, these are people who have never raised children and are too quick to judge.
Similarly, others might frown upon the mother’s sternness, without taking into account the fact that the mother has slowly escalated the consequences and didn’t just jump to being stern or harsh.
Parents, on the other hand, might watch on and not make rash assumptions about the mother being a ‘bad parent’. Rather, they might understand the situation of parents is often tough, and they may be more willing to see it as an isolated incident that they shouldn’t judge too quickly.
13. Police Bias
Police need to be particularly careful about making fundamental attribution errors. If they make assumptions about a person’s personality, they may make poor decisions that can fundamentally affect someone’s life.
If the police make assumptions about a person’s personality when deciding whether to give a warning or a fine, then they are letting fundamental attribution errors interfere with their work.
For example, if a person is quiet and nervous while talking to police, they might assume that the person is a bad person and needs to be taken off the streets. However, they may not understand that in the situation, this person is feeling uncomfortable and that’s why they’re nervous – it has nothing to do with their personality!
Many people who struggle with obesity eat healthily and exercise regularly. However, they may be genetically predisposed to being overweight.
Unfortunately, many people in society assume that any obese person is overweight due to their diet and lack of exercise. This may be true for some people, but not everyone.
If you have made an assumption about an obese person’s personality based upon their weight, then we are making an attribution error. We’re attributing their weight to their personality, rather than biological factors.
15. The Great First Date
Fundamental attribution errors can also work in our favor. For example, if you make a great impression on a first date, your date might think you’re a happy-go-lucky lovely person. They clearly haven’t yet seen the real you!
Here, your date is attributing your behavior during the date to your personality (that you are a really friendly person) rather than to the fact that you were on your very best behavior due to the situation.
Over time, people who start dating start to get to know the ‘real’ version of one another (i.e. their actual longer-term personality), and the relationship starts to break down.
In fact, this is the whole reason we have dating! People date each other for months or years hoping to get to know each other at a deeper level and see a longer-term personality. If we were to get married at first sight, we might accidentally make a fundamental attribution error that we’ll surely regret later!
Other Examples of Heuristics
Focusing on dispositional explanations of people’s behavior can lead to a fundamental attribution error. It is much easier to ascribe personal characteristics as being the source of a person’s actions.
Taking in to account situational factors is time-consuming, mentally demanding, and involves information that simply may not be available to observers.
Unfortunately, this can lead to blaming the victim of a crime, not giving others the benefit of the doubt that they deserve, and ascribing a lot of negative characteristics to people that we know nothing about.
Although it is an unfortunate bias for many, it appears to be, at least partially, a function of culture. People from collectivist cultures are less likely to engage in the fundamental attribution error due to their emphasis on understanding situational factors and the interdependence of people.
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