30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
Fundamental attribution error
Ways We Differ
Attribution is the psychological process of discerning the causes of things. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute the causes of other people’s behaviour to their intrinsic natures, ignoring constraining circumstances. The phrase was coined by psychologist Lee Ross to describe results which showed that people who were asked to read out a speech on a controversial topic were then judged as holding those opinions, even by people who knew they were reading the speech because the experimenter had asked them to! The flip side of the fundamental attribution error is that we tend to overattribute our own behaviour to external circumstances, rather than to personality characteristics. In other words, ’I was late because the alarm didn’t go off, but you’re late because you’re careless!’ Or, ’your views are prejudiced, but mine are reasonable.’ The fundamental attribution error is a classic cognitive bias; a tendency in people’s thinking found in many situations. Critically, people also often fail to account for the effect of this bias on their thinking. The reason for this is the same as the reason why the bias exists in the first place: our own circumstances and intentions are available to us directly and feel compelling. The intentions and circumstances of others are not available to us, so we judge them on their overt behaviours.
It is easy to think of our own behaviour as caused by events, and the behaviour of others as caused by their personalities.
Although fundamental attribution operates in many different situations, there are differences in how strong it is. Research into individualistic versus collectivist cultures (for example, US vs. Chinese) suggests that the bias is stronger in individualistic ones, where people have a stronger sense of themselves as independent. Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their natures, rather than to circumstances. Cognitive behavioural therapists focus on these attributions, attempting to change the ’explanatory style’ someone uses to think about the world.
BECK’S COGNITIVE THERAPY
EDWARD E. JONES
If others are late for a date do you instantly put it down to lack of good timekeeping? Fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to blame the behaviour of others first, and not allow for mitigating circumstances.