8) Perception – Fundamental Attribution Error

Judging Others - the Fundamental Attribution Error. Givent

8) Perception – Fundamental Attribution Error

Why does our judgement of people matter?

GIVENT wants to be clear about how we judge each other. We believe that we should be compassionate, accountable, and understanding of other peoples’ perceived faults and look at the context in which the perceived behavior happened.

The difference between perception and reality can best understood when we learn from what science calls the “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias.”

Simply stated: this is the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior.” The Charles Schultz, “Snoopy’s” cartoon above seems to describe this principle very well.

Not everyone is normal, as we know that there are a few crazies out there. But generally speaking, people are good. And as such, good people often judge other good people by attributing a performance (especially a bad performance), to a personality trait in the performer, but when considering their own performance (especially a bad performance), they will attribute the performance to the situation, not their own personality.

In other words, when we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.

For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport, to the hospital, or even an appointment they are late for.

On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so.  We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character.

The fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook at the same time by rationalizing our own unethical behavior.

In short, we make brief and lazy judgments about others, but we make elaborate excuses for ourselves.


Supporting Research study


It seems that this fundamental attribution error is routed in a reliance on cognitively simple heuristics. In short, we make brief and lazy judgments about others, but we make elaborate excuses for ourselves.

In a classic study in 1985 at Berkeley, Dr. Philip Tetlock set out to replicate past studies showing the Fundamental Attribution Error and attempted to find an antidote.


The hypothesis was simple: If we can encourage effort-demanding, thoughtful analysis of a situation, can we reduce the fundamental attribution error?


103 participants were involved in this research. Each participant received one of two versions of a document showing a controversy on the topic of minority quotas in the selection process.

One document showed a pro-view of the controversy and the other document showed a con-view of the controversy. The participants were also told that the writers were asked to write a persuasive essay favoring (opposing) the implementation of minority quota systems.

The participants in the no-accountability conditions were informed that their impressions of the essay writer would be totally confidential and could in no way be traced back to them.

The participants in the accountability conditions were informed that their impressions would be recorded and they would need to justify their interpretation.


The results were astounding. The participants did draw inferences about the essay writer’s attitudes on the subject of minority quotas, even when knowing that the essay writers were asked to write the essay in a particular way.

Thankfully, accountability per se was sufficient to eliminate the participants’ willingness to draw dispositional conclusions about the essay writer, but only if the participant was warned in advance that they would need to justify their choice. They seemed to be “immune” to the fundamental attribution error.

Sadly, when participants were asked to justify their attribution after reading the essay and after giving the attribution, they showed no difference in making the error from those who were not accountable.

This goes to show that you must make a conscious decision in advance to not make those attributional errors by holding yourself accountable to the way you see the world.

“The rules or strategies people employ in making judgments appear to depend (among other things) on whether they expect to justify the positions they take.”


Reference: Tetlock, P. E. (1985). Accountability: A social chack on the fundamental attribution error. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48(3), 227-236.


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