Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 18;   May 5, 2004: The Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.

The meeting ran over by about five minutes, just long enough to make most of them late to their 11ams. So the room emptied quickly, leaving Spencer alone with the meeting chair, Lynne. Lynne asked, "Help me take down the flip charts?"

"Sure," he said, "no problem."

Nez Perce moccasins"I wanted to talk to you, too," she said. "I really felt that you weren't being very helpful today."

Spencer felt somewhat shocked at first, but then it came to him — it was probably Metronome. Still, he didn't want to let her see that he knew what it was. "Oh? In what way?"

They now had all the flip chart sheets flat on the table, and Lynne sat down in her chair. Spencer sat down across the table from her.

"When you brought up the Metronome interface," she said.

"Oh, that," he said. "It just seemed to me that the rest of the meeting depended on it."

We have a tendency
to explain the behavior
of others in terms of
character rather
than context
Lynne felt her frustration building. "But I explained all that in my email yesterday. And you went ahead anyway. That's what bothers me."

Lynne has now dug herself into a neat hole. She is assuming that Spencer saw her message, and she feels that he disregarded it. In fact, he never did receive it, and he was unaware of the change in the agenda.

Lynne's error is perfectly human. It's so common that it even has a name — the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). As humans, we have a tendency to explain the behavior of others on the basis of disposition or character, rather than context or the actions of third parties. Probably this happens because we understand the internal motives of others more easily than we understand the complex situations they face. That's reasonable, because we usually have only vague information about how situations look to others.

For example, Lynne was completely unaware that Spencer had been having chronic email problems. Customer reports are routed to a list he has to subscribe to, and his inbox suffers from chronic bloat, which has exposed a bug in the email client they all use. Lynne attributed Spencer's behavior to a deliberate choice, but he might have made another choice if he had been aware of the change in the agenda.

An American Indian proverb captures the idea of the FAE most elegantly: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." To help you remember the Fundamental Attribution Error, get a pair of baby moccasins. Baby shoes will do, too. Put one on your desk or on top of your computer monitor and the other in your car. Only you will know what they mean, because everyone else who tries to figure out their meaning will make the Fundamental Attribution Error. Go to top Top  Next issue: Hot and Cold Running People  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

For more about the Fundamental Attribution Error, see Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002. p. 160-163. Order from Amazon.com.

For more articles about the Fundamental Attribution Error and its applications, search this site.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbreneKBIJMEVHcLqgOKoner@ChacNwUwakmAWOYrojEEoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)Demanding Forgiveness
Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Hot and cold faucetsHot and Cold Running People
Do you consider yourself a body linguist? Can you tell what people are thinking just by looking at gestures and postures? Think again. Body language is much more complex and ambiguous than many would have us believe.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchUnintended Consequences
Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
Aerial view of the Charley River at its confluence with the YukonHow to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.

See also Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A group engaged in a brainstormComing February 20: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: I
Recent research suggests that brainstorming might not be as effective as we would like to believe it is. An alternative, speedstorming, might have some advantages for some teams solving some problems. Available here and by RSS on February 20.
A pair discussion in a speedstormAnd on February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvLMMBFHmRnJOWAfWner@ChacQFqEJDEltvKbxEmIoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore the issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.