How to Recognize Fundamental Attribution Error

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Have you ever heard the phrase “Fundamental Attribution Error” before? Put simply, it’s the term for when you attribute someone’s behavior to their character rather than their outside circumstances. Alternatively – holding someone else to a higher standard than you hold yourself.

Why could this be dangerous, and why is it called an error?

Unless you’re a saint on the road, everyone who drives falls victim to Fundamental Attribution Error.

On your drive to work, you get cut off. You honk at the offender, cursing his bad decision-making and decide he (or she) must be the stupidest driver to ever pass the licensing exam.

Of course, you would NEVER cut someone off.

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Except…you did. Yesterday.

Perhaps… perhaps the person who just made a poor driving decision is late to a meeting. Maybe he’s rushing to the hospital to see his dying grandmother before she passes away.

Now, I’m not excusing his bad driving. I’m saying that there are other reasons to make poor decisions than innate character.

[bctt tweet=”Unless you’re a saint on the road, everyone who drives falls victim to Fundamental Attribution Error.” username=”inspiredforward”]

When you cut someone off, you grimace and squeal “Sorry!!” even though they can’t hear you. You rationalize your decision based on external factors, like how late you are to work. It makes you feel better about what just happened, but the driver YOU just cut off is now thinking you’re the dumbest driver that ever lived.

We all do it.

And it’s dangerous.

It doesn’t just happen while we’re driving. It happens at work, at school, in relationships, and so on. When people fall victim to Fundamental Attribution Error, they’re reinforcing the idea that they (ourselves) are flawless and faultless (even though we know we’re not) because they KNOW why they did what they just did.

Recently I encountered a driver who, for all I know, is either crazy or just having a bad day. I had just gotten onto the freeway where the on-ramp got its own lane and hadn’t even signaled to change lanes before a woman in the next lane started honking at me. When she passed, she gave me a look of greatest disgust, and it seemed as though she were yelling at me from within her car. 

From my perspective, I didn’t do anything to elicit that behavior. I was in my own lane, not signaling to change lanes, not drifting over the line, and yet she honked and sped past with anger and a shaking fist.

I can’t know her circumstances. 

Before I knew what fundamental attribution error is, I would’ve been angry at this woman the entire drive home – almost an hour past the initial incident that I’m still holding on to that indignation of being honked at for no reason.

But she probably had a reason. At least, it was a reason to her. It made sense to her at the time. But I have no idea what was going through her head or what her situation was to do that.

There’s a reason we don’t think the worst of ourselves in situations like these.

[bctt tweet=”Why would we want to think of ourselves as jerks, idiots, etc.? We tend to think the best of ourselves, and fundamental attribution error means we also think the worst of others for the same behavior.” username=”inspiredforward”]

If you have a drinking problem, you’re a hopeless, disgusting, wreck of a human with no self-respect. If I have a drinking problem, it’s because the stress of the job is so high that alcohol is the only thing I’ve found to dull the worry and anxiety from it.

Same problem, different attributions for the behavior.

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So how can we recognize it?

It’s easy to say just be mindful of what you’re thinking, but that’s not always easy to do. I still find myself irritated with other drivers or other people because of the fundamental attribution error. And oftentimes I only recognize my irritation way after the fact.

It’s worth it to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Once you do that, patterns will emerge and you’ll be able to recognize what situations trap you into thinking the worst of others but the best of yourself for the same behavior.

Instead of: “That person is such an idiot. I never would’ve done that.”

Think: “Why would I have done something like that?” 

Look at it from the other person’s perspective. Atticus Finch, Scout’s dad in To Kill a Mockingbird, puts it this way:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

Until we learn to slow down in our assumptions and think about the problem differently, we’ll be falling victim to fundamental attribution error more often than we should.

Common Situations

  • Driving
  • Checking your phone during dinner
  • Overhearing conversations
  • Feeling like you’d be a better manager than yours is
  • Assuming that someone knows (or should know) what you know


Have you found yourself falling into the fundamental attribution error before? When do you do it most often?

2 thoughts on “How to Recognize Fundamental Attribution Error”

  1. Very insightful article! I agree that we all fall into the fundamental attribution error trap. I see it in my own family even where one believes they deserve more of something because they view themselves as working the hardest in the family, never seeing stuff the other people do being as valuable as the work they have done. I love the quote from To Kill a Mockingbird!

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