Concept of the Day: Fundamental Attribution Error

I’ve written a few times about our many biases, this is another one along the same lines. This one is slightly more complicated to understand, but once you do I hope it will challenge how you interact with people and how you respond to situations.

Imagine you are sat in an update meeting and you are going through the list of actions from the previous meeting with the assembled team. You get to an action that John is supposed to have progressed and you ask him how he has got. John looks at you surprised, “Was that my action?” He says. You continue to go down the list until you come to another action that John is supposed to have completed. This time John looks a bit embarrassed and says that he hasn’t had chance to look at it whilst writing something into his notebook. The very next action is another one for John, again, no progress, this time he looks down and taps something into his smartphone.

How do you feel about John? Why do you think he hasn’t made progress on his actions?

Your response to John probably demonstrates fundamental attribution error.

Let me explain.

Attribution is what we do when we project a perspective or characteristic onto someone. Put simply, there are two classes of attribution.

Dispositional Attribution is the class of attributes that make up someones character, the internal characteristics; they are lazy, they are disorganised, they have no focus, they are arrogant.

Situation Attribution is the class of attributes that relate to the situation, the external characteristics; they are in too busy, they are having a bad day, they aren’t well.

Then there’s the Fundamental Error part, this is where our biases come in.

It turns out that when attributing a perspective or characteristic onto someone else we tend towards Dispositional Attribution. In our scenario we are most likely to characterise John as lazy or disorganised. We then have a tendency to use that attribution for future interactions with people – “There’s no point in giving actions to John because he’s too disorganised.”

Here’s the really interesting part though. When we assess our own performance in a situation we tend towards Situational Attribution. Now imagine you are John; what’s your reason for not doing you actions? It won’t be because you are lazy, it won’t be because you are disorganised. Your reasoning for your own behaviour will be because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or because you are too busy, or even because you are just having a bad day.

The way that we judge others is radically different, even opposed, to how we judge ourselves.

The chances are that neither Dispositional or Situational factors will be wholly responsible most of the time.

So next time you are in a situation and find yourself assessing people’s motives, attributing, it might help to ask yourself which side of the spectrum you are on. Perhaps there are situational factors that you hadn’t thought of?

Here’s a video that’s probably clearer than my ramblings:

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