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Fundamental Attribution Error plays with your mind

Updated: Apr 11

“I am a thoughtful person. My friends told me so! But last wednesday my colleague had an important business meeting. And I forgot to reach out to support her. That’s not something a thoughtful person would do?“ 

– Are you having similar inner dialogue sometimes? This article will help.

This article is inspired by The Choice Factory. A book written by Richard Shotton about cognitive biases in marketing and everyday life.

What is the Fundamental attribution error?


You’re going to work. It’s a lovely sunny day. You notice a little sunflower on the Starbucks cup next to your name. You smile. 

Suddenly you hear moaning. You raise your eyes and sweet chestnut coffee gets bitter (I know, ironic) in your mouth. A few steps in front of you lies a man. His hand is on his chest. He gasps. 

Right in front of you is another fella. Well groomed man in a striped suit. You assume he’ll stop and help the poor buddy. But he doesn’t. What an asshole. 

Why didn’t he help?

A. Because he’s an asshole.

B. Because men in suits are always like that.

C. Because he was in a hurry.

Guess now. I’ll reveal the correct answer at the end.

In the meantime I’ll share with you an experiment that might help.

In the year 1973 John Darley and Daniel Batson from Princeton University asked 40 students why they seek to become catholic priests.

After the query, researchers send them to another room to give a speech on the same topic. 

But before that they divided the participants into three groups. 

  • First one was told to hurry, they are already late.

  • Second one only had a hard time getting to the room on time.

  • Third one had plenty of time to commute. 

Here comes the gist. On their way to another room these saint folks encountered a man in distress – lying on the ground, moaning. How many of them helped him? You want to guess?

Well, before that, we have to agree on one thing. All 40 men are equally saint. So they should be eager to help the poor man … also equally. Right?

But that was not the case. Only 40% of students stopped to help. From this share only 10% was from the highly time pressured first group. Another 45 % was from the second group and 63% was from the relaxed third group.

You’re nodding your head like it makes sense? They were under time pressure. Of course they might make the wrong decision.

Sure. Sure...

So why did you think that the man in a suit from our previous story was an asshole? Maybe he was also in a hurry and did not even notice the poor man on the ground.

Let’s not fight. I reveal the answer now. You have become a victim of a Fundamental Attribution Error. 

According to this bias we blame everything on personality traits while overlooking the context.

Why? Because it’s so much easier to do. We have only one personality (ideally). But there is literally an infinite number of factors influencing our behavior. (State of mind, weather, hunger, thirst, headache, suit is itchy, boss is annoying.) 

Suit guy being an asshole is a simple solution to our problem. But the truth is – we can’t tell why he neglected the man in need.

He may be a decent person, even a student wanting to become a catholic priest. Maybe he was hungry and could not see straight. Maybe his heart just got broken and ... he could not see straight. Maybe he just was in a little hurry and did not notice the poor man.

How can Fundamental Attribution Error change your life

You know how they say “judge people according to their actions“? Well, don’t judge folks based on ONE action. That's all.

The good thing is that we are all already living by this rule to some extend. 

Imagine your spouse is irritated with you for leaving the dirty socks on the ground. (First of all, yuck.) Now, you don’t automatically asume they have anger issues, right? They might have a bad week. That's why they are more sensitive. (And again, yuck...)

Yet when you’re on the street passing by a strange person and they are on their phone yelling? Your first thought is: “what an angry asshole!“ 

But now you know the secret of Fundamental Attribution Error. So you can react differently.

Give yelling people on the streets a little grace and assume “well, well, they might not have anger issues. Maybe they just have a bad day. That's why they're sensitive.

Maybe they woke up in the morning and stumble upon someone's dirty socks.“

Correct answer:

C. Because he was in a hurry.

(And possibly D. We don't know.)

Source: Richard Shotton | The Choice Factory 

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