The Fundamental Attribution Error

It’s an easy one to make. This is something I’ve thought a lot about since being first introduced to it while studying for the MCAT. The fundamental attribution error is when we assume that a person’s behavior is a product of that persons personality or disposition, some internal factor; that’s just the way they are. What we are ignoring when we make this error are external factors that may have influenced that person’s behavior.

A place where I think FAEs are perhaps most commonly made are in restaurants; That waiter is taking so long, he is lazy and is a bad person. Less frequently do we think, He must really busy right now, or simply, He must be having a rough day.

Here are what I think the advantages are to the latter reaction:

  1. You avoid becoming self-righteous. By dissociating the behavior from the person, you avoid enforcing the whole I’m good, others are bad mentality.
  2. You are less angry, ’cause no one like to be angry. If you commit a FAE, often times you can feel personally attacked or just mad because you have been personally harmed or inconvenienced.
  3.  It builds empathy, and empathy makes the world a better place. You try and see things from their perspective and try to understand where they might be coming from.

We are all human, we all make mistakes and we all make bad decisions.

I’m not condoning “bad behavior” or saying that treating another person poorly is ever justified, but what happened happened, and how we choose to interpret another person’s behavior can have profound effects on ourselves and our own outlook.


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