Fundamental Attribution Error

OVERVIEW

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the tendency for people to explain someone else’s behaviour on their personality or other intrinsic qualities in a given situation rather than considering the influence of the situational factors.

  • is also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect
  • The FAE important because behaviour is often more determined by context rather a person’s particular characteristics
  • FAE is an example of attribution bias, the class of cognitive biases that result in systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to find reasons for their own and others’ behaviours (others are the ultimate attribution error, actor-observer bias, and hostile attribution bias)

The FAE rarely applies to oneself – individuals often explain their (bad) behaviour on situational factors rather than an intrinsic character flaw.

“…explanation of the behavior of humans always requires reference to the situation the person is in” — Richard Nesbitt

EXAMPLES

These include:

  • Most people’s immediate reaction when someone cuts in front of them on the motorway is “what a jerk!”. However, it may be that the person is late for the airport or has a labouring woman in the car
  • Blaming the victim of sexual assault because of the way she dressed or acted

EXPLANATIONS

Explanations for why the FAE occurs include:

  • Just world phenomenon — the belief that people get what they deserve; provides the security that if you are a good person then bad things won’t happen to you (Lerner and Miller, 1978)
  • Salience of the actor — tendency to attribute an observed effect to potential causes that capture our attention, i.e. the person involved
  • Lack of effortful adjustment — FAE occurs even though we are aware that the person’s behavior is constrained by situational factors as it requires effort to simultaneous consider dispositional and situational factors. Thus FAE is more likely to occur with increased cognitive load.
  • Culture — FAE may be more common in Western culture (individualism) than in Eastern collectivist cultures

RELEVANCE TO EDUCATION

Educators should always be wary of the FAE when assessing the performance of learners

  • This is important in simulation-based education and when given feedback in the real world
  • ask yourself, ‘I wonder what situational factors contributed to that behaviour?’
  • consider using advocacy-inquiry to allow the learner to share why they think they did what did

The FAE is useful for establishing a psychologically safe “no blame” culture that is important for healthcare systems to be able to detect and analyse errors

  • we need to remember that actions are a result of both intrinsic factors (e.g. personality) and situational factors, and for any given behaviour both are likely to be at play (“interactionism”)
  • an emphasis on situational factors is important as they are often more easily modifiable
  • however, we should avoid diminishing individual responsibility by over-emphasizing situational factors

EVIDENCE

Jones and Harris, 1967

  • The investigators found that subjects rated an author’s attitude equally as positive or negative regardless of whether they were told that (1) the author had freely chosen to write positively/ negatively about Fidel Castro as when they were told that (2) the author had to write a positive/ negative article based on the result of a coin toss

Milgram, 1963

  • Milgram’s notorious ‘obedence’ experiment
  • “two-thirds of subjects proved willing to deliver a great deal of electric shock to a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, well beyond the point where he became silent after begging them to stop on account of his heart condition” (Nesbitt, 2017)
  • these people were not intrinsically evil, they succumbed to the influence of an authority figure

According to Richard Nesbitt:

  • “when large numbers of people are observed in a wide range of situations, the correlation for trait-related behavior runs about .20 or less. People think the correlation is around .80”
  • our calibration is likely to improve if we observe people’s behaviour in fixed situations repeatedly over time

CONTROVERSIES AND PITFALLS

Scott McNeal has argued that “the idea that situations and dispositions are opposing forces in determining behavior reflects a false dichotomy, because the two are complementary”

  • The Jones and Harris (1967) experiment could be re-interpreted as the subjects misjudging the situational influence of the writers when doing what the investigators wanted

Malle (2006)

  • 95% of evidence for the FAE is based on carefully controlled lab experiments rather than observations of everyday life
  • meta-analysis of 173 studies that met inclusion criteria available by 2005 found an effect size of near zero
  • An effect of the FAE y was found only when
    • the other person was portrayed as being very unusual/ idiosyncratic
    • when hypothetical (rather than real) events were explained
    • when people were intimate (knew each other well)
    • when researcher degrees of freedom were high

Newman & Bakina (2009)

  • found that interactionism (both dispositional and situational factors contribute to behaviour) is generally preferred

Sabini, Siepmann, and Stein (2001):

  • “the overly broad message that situations, not dispositions, cause behavior seems to erode responsibility for behavior. This message lets people off the hook for what is their fault (as well as for what is not their fault) and denies them praise for what they should be praised for.”

CONCLUSION

  • The importance of situational factors (and the FAE) relative to dispositional factors in determining behaviour is controversial and may vary in different circumstances
  • An interactionist approach, that involves consideration of both dispositional and situational factors, is useful practically
  • Awareness of the FAE allows us to consider the situational factors that affect performance, but should not do so at the cost of negating personal responsibility

References and links

Journal articles

  • Jones EE, Harris VA. The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 3(1):1-24. 1967. [article]
  • Lerner MJ, Miller DT. Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin. 85(5):1030-1051. 1978. [article]
  • Malle BF. The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: a (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin. 132(6):895-919. 2006. [pubmed]
  • Milgram S. Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378. 1963 [article]
  • Newman LS, Bakina DA. Do people resist social‐psychological perspectives on wrongdoing? Reactions to dispositional, situational, and interactionist explanations. Social Influence. 4(4):256-273. 2009. [article]

FOAM and web resources

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SMILE

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Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also the Innovation Lead for the Australian Centre for Health Innovation at Alfred Health and Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of two amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

One comment

  1. Dimitris Gkiokas
    Dimitris Gkiokas

    Great post, Chris!

    It really helps better define and clarify what the Fundamental Attribution Error is, and I love how thoroughly researched this is!

    I personally used to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error on a consistent basis – leading to a lot of bad decisions and maybe even some damaged relationships with people…

    While at the same time I always “cut myself some slack” – falling prey to FAE completely.

    Do you know what the craziest part is?

    When I first came across the term, and even read a couple articles about it, it didn’t even make a dent!

    I continued with the exact same behavior like nothing happened…

    And it was only after I came face to face with some of the consequences of FAE, that I went back, rediscovered the terminology, and actually understood what it means!

    After a while, I figured out what was missing from the first couple of articles that I had read on FAE:

    They didn’t say anything about the actual impact it can have on your life…

    And they also missed the opportunity cost, seeing as how FAE can both break your life and make it, if you know how to counter it!

    That’s why I teamed up with Michael Simmons, and we wrote an article on FAE that had exactly that as its aim…

    Not only to explain and present the Fundamental Attribution Error, but also to showcase the actual impact it can have in a person’s life.

    If you get a couple minutes, check it out. I respect your opinion – feedback is always appreciated.

    You can check it out here:

    https://medium.com/accelerated-intelligence/fundamental-attribution-error-this-cognitive-bias-destroys-relationships-6f405895b81b

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