Fundamental attribution error

It’s intriguing how often you will stumble across someone’s hallucinations about another person’s motives for action.

In earlier posts I’ve discussed the character attacks that a critic (any critic) can commonly expect to endure in response to them giving their gift:
‘Oh you’re just saying that because you’re … [fill in the space] (jealous/competing/not willing to share the spotlight etc).

Broadly speaking, it seems common, even normal, for people to suspect that ‘ulterior’ internal motives — related to character — lie behind someone’s actions, whether this is actually a rational thought or not. It turns out it is normal.

Using the term ‘fundamental attribution error’, psychologists point to our irrational tendency to explain behaviour — particularly other people’s behaviour by assigning character attributes — e.g. dishonest, angry, impatient, inconsiderate, somehow aggrieved or biased against the person acting. (We also use these traits to ‘explain’ why things happen to them as well, but that’s another story.)

Essentially, the fundamental attribution error involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone’s behaviour in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors.

… It [fundamental attribution error] certainly illustrates several interesting things about cognitive biases, like the fact that people tend to consider their own behavior in a different light than the behavior of others. It also illustrates the brain’s genuine desire to comprehend a situation and the behavior which occurred in that situation in a logical way.


So, according to this theory in social psychology, it’s normal for humans to tend to overemphasise internal factors in explaining a person’s behaviour. Rather than looking for external factors or circumstances which could be driving a person to act the way they are, often observers can quickly assign as a cause some internal personality trait e.g. they’re aggressive or arrogant.

Seeing this ‘cognitive bias’ in action illustrates that the effort people put in to trying to work out WHY someone else behaves the way they do is wasted, most of the time. Often such ‘insights’ are a hallucination.

A worked example of an argument to illuminate the problems that can arise

If we already believe someone has a point of view on a relevant issue, we are quick to ascribe that predetermined view as a key determining factor in their behaviour.

Let’s say A has previously expressed disrespect for B and his theories.

When the attribution error is at play, virtually ANY comment A makes about B’s theories is perceived to be ’caused’ by that previously identified disrespect.
The thinking goes like this:

‘A doesn’t respect B, ergo, any criticism A makes is driven by that disrespect.’

Whereas, it could be that, having considered it, A disagrees with B’s latest theory because he honestly thinks that theory is wrong. His view might be that he disputes its conclusions as overstated or that it doesn’t take some important factors into account.

Other observers also can readily fall into the trap of NOT properly considering
(1) A’s criticism of B’s theories, and
(2) any arguments A raises in support of those criticisms, as well as
(3) counter-arguments B puts up (if any).

Thus, such observers descend into a schoolyard-level shorthand:

‘A hates B and so they fight.’

Rather than look at the issues of the argument, it is far ‘easier’ to characterise the debate as expressing a grudge or clash of two ‘personalities’. (Psychologists tell us we are wired to think this way.)

To amplify matters, often the person being criticised [B] having been wounded/outraged by the criticism and perceiving it as a ‘personal attack’, (whether it is or not) responds with a character attack of his own aimed at his critic [A].

The criticised person can quickly find himself reflexively switching into a defensive, counter-attack mode. Operating in this mode, it’s common to try shoot the messenger, trying to ‘defend a reputation’ instead of explicitly making a case or arguing the issues. (See my post ‘How to have a FAIR argument‘.)

In my experience, no-one is immune to this defensiveness — no matter how enlightened they think they might be.

But it can be striking to watch how quickly other observers of the debate (i.e. non-combatants, those with ‘no dog in the fight’) can ALSO fall into the error of attributing internal character traits as explanations for external actions.

Our attempts at this attribution can be nothing more than conjecture — and certainly not based on any real knowledge.

But it just seems so plausible.