The Blame Game – Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the more common and disruptive behaviors in the workplace is something that behavioral psychologists have named the Fundamental Attribution Error.  It involves attributing people’s actions to their competence or character as opposed to underlying situational factors.   A typical example is the immediate and harsh judgement that one makes when witnessing someone exhibiting “negative” behavior.  The immediate inclination is to view the person as rude or incompetent.  There is little thought given to whether the person was in some difficult situation that influenced their behavior.

Consider the last time you were cut off in traffic.  Your immediate reaction was that the individual who cut you off was a jerk.  Conversely, consider the last time you were suddenly honked at for drifting into a different lane.  You may have had an immediate alibi (e.g. the sun was in my eyes, my infant was distracting me) that explained your behavior based on a situation.  You didn’t immediately come to the conclusion that you were an inconsiderate or incompetent driver.

The Fundamental Attribution Bias is a well demonstrated phenomenon that has been validated by numerous scientific experiments.  A classic study by Jones and Harris
in 1967 demonstrated the bias in action.  A group of subjects were split into groups and asked to write essays.  One group was told to write pro-Castro essays and the other to write anti-Castro essays.  A separate group of subjects was asked to rate the strength of the writer’s personal views on Castro.  Even when the raters were told that the writers had been assigned randomly, they tended to associate the position of the essay with the underlying political beliefs of the writers.   In other words, they immediately attributed the writer’s underlying character to their behavior and ignored the situational influence.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is so pervasive that I guarantee you will see it in action over the next week if you keep your eyes open.  In the workplace, it leads to unfair judgements of people’s performance and motivations.  Typical behaviors that trigger these judgements include errors, missed deadlines and perceived impoliteness.  Our typical inclination is too blame our colleague and believe that their behavior is simply a manifestation of a character weakness.  Conversely, when we are the party that has committed the error, missed the deadline or “snubbed” someone, we have a ready defense.  We say that we were “overloaded”, or insufficiently trained or that we were distracted, not impolite.

In conclusion, it is common for people to rapidly draw conclusions about the character and capabilities of others.  Being aware of this tendency can make you a fairer person on a professional and personal level.  The next time you find yourself coming to a negative conclusion about someone’s character or ability, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible that there are situational factors affecting the individual’s performance or behavior?
  • Can you imagine an example of a situational factor that could be impacting the individual?
  • Can you envision yourself in the shoes of the individual and imagine their challenges?

Unquestionably, there are genuine jerks and incompetent people we run across in life.  Given our inherent tendency to ascribe negative traits quickly, we will be better off by considering alternate explanations before we jump to conclusions.  Those folks that are truly deserving of negative labels will have ample opportunity to validate your suspicions!

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