I’m cruising along in traffic when the Chevy Tahoe cuts me off before the red light. Now I’m stuck behind him, and my mind is racing.
What a dick, I think. You obviously believe you’re more important than me. Now my blood pressure is rising, I’m having a physical reaction, and suddenly I know everything there is to know about this guy. Didn’t even give me the little hand wave. What a garbage person. Drives a car like that in the city — makes sense. The inner monologue goes on and on. And for the rest of the drive, I look around at every other driver on the road as if they, too, are cut from the same cloth as the monster behind the wheel of that Tahoe.
Of course, there are other explanations.
Maybe Tahoe is rushing to the hospital, where his kid is being treated for a broken arm.
Or maybe he left work early because he’s sick, and he’s desperate to get home.
Maybe he just needed to squeeze in, and then a phone call distracted him, so he forgot to give me the hand wave. Maybe he did give me the hand wave, but I couldn’t see it, because he’s driving such a huge car. Which he’s driving because his other car was totaled when someone t-boned him last month, and he’s still a little shaken up, and so he’s not driving at his best.
Or maybe he’s a totally ordinary driver, just like me in this moment, and he just needed to change lanes, and there’s nothing more to it than his simple desire to get home.
All of this is also possible.
The difference between these two interpretations of the same event comes down to a quirk of the mind called the fundamental attribution error.
Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the tendency to explain other people’s behavior in terms of their character or intent, rather than external or circumstantial factors.
FAE explains why I saw the Chevy Tahoe as a total dick rather than a concerned parent, a bad citizen rather than an ailing person, an inconsiderate swine instead of a distracted driver.
FAE is what makes us attribute people’s behavior to who they fundamentally are — or who we think they are — and then interpret events in a way that confirms that attribution.
And not surprisingly, this cognitive bias makes us miserable.
Because when we believe that what people do reflects who they are, we judge the world based on a very narrow and unreliable set of data.
We invest heavily in that personalized interpretation — over-prioritizing actions and under-prioritizing circumstance — so that we can be “right” and other people can be “wrong.”
Meanwhile, we tend to do the exact opposite with ourselves.
While we judge other people by their actions, we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions — which makes us view our own decisions much more charitably.
Even when we wrong someone or make a mistake, we can never really be considered “bad,” because we didn’t mean for things to go down that way. We were just doing our best, or hoping for a different outcome, or working with what we had, or simply responding to circumstances at the time.
That’s why when I cut someone off in traffic, I tend to believe I was doing my best to get home in a sea of angry drivers. But when other people cut me off in traffic, it’s because they’re terrible people. (Amazing how that works, right?)
At the same time, FAE can shape-shift into other forms of cognitive bias, such as attributing people’s success to external factors (e.g., being lucky or landing in the right place at the right time), while attributing our own success to agency and character (e.g., being talented or putting in the hard work to get ahead).
The result of all this?
A very convenient, highly compelling, hopelessly incomplete story about ourselves and the world.
And just like I did in traffic with the Tahoe, we take that story and apply it to situations we haven’t even encountered yet, projecting the template of FAE onto all of our interactions, big and small, in every area of our lives. One bad driver on the road becomes all drivers. One bad date becomes all first dates.
When we allow this cognitive bias to take over, we interpret the world in a way that creates a ton of drama, tension and pain — most of it completely unnecessary.
But FAE seems to be built in to the human experience, like contact lenses we can’t take out.
So how do we overcome this troubling bias?
How can we appreciate all of the possible variables — external factors, circumstance, random chance — that make people do what they do?
And most importantly, how do we interpret their behavior without making ourselves miserable?
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this article. But first, we have to understand the roots of this strange bias.
Why do we attribute things erroneously?
It’s a really interesting question.
After all, wouldn’t it be to our benefit to interpret other people’s behavior correctly? Isn’t it more advantageous to know when someone’s actions represent who they are, as opposed to their circumstances? After all, how could an incorrect attribution be serving us?
This is where the narrow self-interest of the human mind get us into trouble.
According to one meta-analysis, the attribution error could have developed in a brain that evolved to bias our beliefs in a way that reduces the costs of erroneous inferences — in other words, mistakes.
FAE is designed to make us interpret people’s behavior in a way that avoids incorrect assumptions, rather than encouraging us to arrive at truly correct ones.
Evolutionarily, it would be to our benefit to assume the “worst” in other people in case it’s true, rather than to look for the “best,” which might or might not be true.
(Wrap your head around that for a second. Your brain literally is designed to make some mistakes in order to avoid more mistakes. No wonder these biases are so tough to crack!)
Replace that Chevy Tahoe with an unknown stranger from another tribe, and you can begin to imagine why FAE might be part of our ancient survival toolkit.
The other evolutionary benefit to FAE is the ability to bias inferences in a way that creates reputational benefits.
When we interpret our own behavior differently from the way we interpret other people’s, we’re often trying to enhance people’s perceptions of us. We improve our own reputations, while simultaneously devaluing someone else’s.
That reputational jiggery would have had huge benefits for our standing within the tribe. It would dictate how much food, safety and power we’d have within the community. It would shape how people saw us, how they treated us, and how much they trusted us. And if you think about it, it still does today, maybe more than ever.
But FAE is also a natural consequence of seeing the world as a human being.
Because humans focus more on people than on situations when they observe the world, we tend to prioritize character over circumstance.
At the same time, other people tend to focus on the situation they’re responding to — because they’re in it — but struggle to see themselves engaging in a particular behavior.
That’s why observers tend to attribute other people’s actions to dispositional factors like personality, character and values, while actors (the people being observed) tend to attribute those same actions to situational factors. How we explain people’s behavior is dictated by our subjective perspectives within the situation.
Finally, FAE has a huge cultural component.
A great deal of our society — our norms, our culture, our legal system, and so on — runs on the idea that people are personally responsible for what they do.
FAE enables us to view people in this way, by attributing their choices to disposition rather than circumstance. If people weren’t responsible for their actions — if we could explain things like crime in terms of situational factors — the underpinnings of our society would start to come undone. Could we hold our system together if we didn’t think people were fundamentally responsible for their actions? Probably not.
But the answer might also depend on culture. Researchers have pointed out that FAE is based on an individualist worldview, which views people as separate, unique and primarily responsible for their actions. People in collectivist cultures, on the other hand, tend to attribute actions more to situational factors, taking into account the person’s position within events and the community.
It’s possible that FAE is more of a Western phenomenon, which is interesting for two reasons.
First, FAE might not be quite as hard-wired into the human mind as it seems. Culture might play as much or more of a role in creating it. And second, FAE can be overcome — or at least checked — by learning to identify all of the variables at play in a person’s behavior.
So the science of attribution error actually gives us a few interesting avenues to overcoming this cognitive bias. Which brings us to the real question.
How to overcome Fundamental Attribution Error.
Overcoming a cognitive bias is an ongoing practice. It depends on a mix of mindsets, principles and exercises that help us see the cognitive bias for what it is, and adopt a more accurate, more productive, healthier view. And it begins, as most things do, with awareness.
Notice the tendency to attribute.
Before we can correct FAE, we need to notice when it creeps up. Most of the time, attribution errors are so fast, so subtle and so pernicious that we don’t even see them when they arise. They immediately fuse with our perceptions, so that witnessing the Chevy Tahoe cut us off in traffic is the same as believing the Chevy Tahoe is a monster behind the wheel.
The first thing we need to do is notice.
Noticing means bringing more awareness to our thoughts as they arise. It means tracking our observations as they form, and choosing — consciously — to look for the beliefs embedded in those observations.
What we usually find — spoiler alert! — is that almost every observation contains some kind of belief within it.
Unless we happen to be extra Buddha that day, we don’t just see the Chevy Tahoe switch lanes. We see the monster behind the wheel choosing to cut us off — making a move to us — probably because they’re selfish and dismissive.
Most observations about other people contain some sort of attribution error.
In other words, the observation and the embedded belief come as a package. It’s up to us to unwrap that package, and take apart its components.
As we become more aware of the attributions buried within the observations, we can notice when these beliefs creep in. We don’t need to decide at this stage if they’re right or wrong. We just need to notice them. Because when we notice, a couple things happen.
First, the energy around them diminishes.
We don’t feel the instinctive pull to buy into them as much, and we don’t feel gripped by their urgency. When we don’t investigate them, then they’re free to roam around in our psyches, dictating how we think and feel, usually without our awareness.
When we notice our beliefs as they arise, we avoid that knee jerk emotional response. We don’t invest as strongly in the feelings that accompany the belief — the rage at the Chevy Tahoe driver, the anger at the sister who didn’t return our call, the resentment toward the boss who just called us in on a weekend.
Instead, we just notice the belief, and allow whatever feelings that arise to be there. Down the line, we can decide if that emotional response is appropriate. But we’re not beholden to it just because it’s there.
Second, we free ourselves up to observe without the burden of those beliefs.
When we notice our attributions, we can start to look at people and situations in a new way — less judgmentally, less harshly, with a new openness and innocence. That allows us to form more accurate beliefs down the line.
We can choose to understand people more kindly, more empathically, more flexibly. We can choose to understand a situation more charitably, more creatively, more productively. We can find new meaning where we would have otherwise been gripped by judgment. In short, we can choose to decide what to believe, rather than letting our ancient brains run the ship.
Curiosity and self-awareness are our main tools in this stage.
We need to be curious — to choose to be curious — about our beliefs. Otherwise, we’ll miss the attribution errors when they arise.
Then, we need to have enough self-awareness to notice them when they come up. This is a matter of bringing more consciousness to our everyday thoughts — making it a practice to observe those thoughts, rather than to buy into them unconsciously the moment they creep in. This is mindfulness in a nutshell, and it’s the bedrock of all healthy cognitive processing.
Notice situation as well as disposition.
As we’ve seen, the “error” in “fundamental attribution error” is how and why we attribute people’s actions to their character. We make the mistake of believing that what people do is a reflection of who they are, as opposed to what happens to be going on around them.
When we observe people’s behavior, we need to look for circumstantial factors as well as personality.
That means consciously opening up the aperture to look for more data than our brains are designed to take in. Instead of noticing the external behavior, we need to look around that behavior. We need to account for environment, circumstance, relationships, moods, and even seemingly mundane factors, such as lifestyle preferences and time of day.
FAE shows us that a person’s behavior is about much more than their personality.
Their actions are not just a reflection of who they are, but about who they are in context. In some cases, personality is the smallest part of a person’s actions, and the situation dictates everything!
Dario, a listener of the show, recently found himself wrestling with new feelings of frustration and resentment when he was promoted to manager of his sales engineering division.
Suddenly, he was confronted with a ton of new data he never noticed as an employee — the way salespeople politicked to get leads, the way they took credit for ideas that weren’t theirs, and how much they worried about their commissions and paychecks.
Almost overnight, he told me, his view of his former colleagues changed completely. Where he used to see ambitious, motivated, passionate salespeople who wanted the company to succeed, now he saw self-interested, insecure, cutthroat opportunists who wanted to earn as much as possible for themselves.
This belief was so intense, Dario explained, that it was actually making him doubt his career choice. If he had known his promotion would change his view of the job so dramatically, he probably wouldn’t have taken it.
Of course, Dario was dealing with his own attribution errors.
When his salespeople exhibited these behaviors — the politicking, the competition, the lobbying, the territorialism — he automatically attributed them to their characters. When we unpacked it, Dario realized that he was only assuming that was the case. Could there be more to the story?
What Dario had missed was that his team’s behavior could be explained by several other variables. Commission structures, for example. A culture of competition. The physical proximity to other salespeople. The fact that overall growth was stalling, which meant that his team had fight for a piece of a shrinking pie. And then there were a bunch of environmental factors, like the open-office floor plan, which allowed salespeople to eavesdrop on one another, and the fact that back-to-back sales calls often made it hard to grab lunch during the day, which made some salespeople hangry as the day went on.
After some reflection, Dario began to appreciate how much these factors were influencing his employees’ behavior.
More than that, he realized that he had exhibited the exact same behaviors when he was a salesperson — but that he had interpreted those actions much more charitably in himself.
He had failed to appreciate how the environment around his team was shaping their decisions, just as it had shaped his own. As we’ve seen, that is classic FAE in action — two sides of the same erroneous coin.
Once Dario understood how his FAE was influencing his beliefs, he began to appreciate the full range of factors that explained his team’s behavior. It wasn’t that his department was full of jerks. It was that his department was full of people who were responding to policies, values and environments that were more influential than he realized.
We need to consciously account for all of the variables that explain people’s behavior.
We can’t cherry pick the ones that focus on character over situation. That’s what our brains want to do, but as we’ve seen, that quirk is not in the service of the truth.
Instead, we have to choose to notice how character and situation interact to produce behaviors in a way that is not always reflective of who people are deep down. That’s how we overcome the cognitive bias.
Armed with that insight, Dario found that his experience at work transformed. He was more patient and understanding when his salespeople fought for leads. He didn’t judge them for fighting for business given their compensation structure. He lobbied management to adjust commission policies to incentivize more collaboration, and he began to cultivate a culture of shared practices to encourage his salespeople to partner and learn from one another, instead of just competing. And, though it seems like a minor detail, he required his team to take breaks to recharge throughout the day, adjusting his department’s KPIs to reflect that new policy.
That’s the kind of leadership that’s possible when we overcome our cognitive biases.
And this process applies to all kinds of situations, big and small.
When we meet a shy person at a party, we can refrain from believing that he’s fundamentally rude and shut down, and remember that socializing with strangers can be intimidating for all of us.
When we notice a colleague getting heated at work, we can hold off on labels of self-interest, and recognize that the pressure to look good might be causing them to defend their decisions.
When we fight with a difficult parent, we can choose not to view them as conflict-driven people, and remember that their childhood and circumstances might explain their behavior.
We can stop attributing behavior purely to character, and start looking at the forces operating around that person.
Those situational forces can be everything from past experience to time of day, office politics to physical environment. People behave the way they do for a whole host of reasons. It’s up to us to notice them, even — and especially — when our instinct is to discount them.
Notice what you’re getting out of the attribution.
When we attribute people’s behavior to character, we usually derive some kind of benefit from the judgment. That benefit can be extremely subtle, but it’s usually there, lurking behind the erroneous belief.
Dario, for example, noticed that when he attributed his team’s behavior to their character, he got to view himself as a certain kind of person: the “embattled manager,” the “disillusioned employee,” and the “unappreciated boss.”
In other words, he got to fulfill a certain role when he allowed his FAE to run wild. He didn’t notice that these roles was part of the “deal” his mind was trying to create. But once we dragged it into the light, he couldn’t deny that he was actually enjoying his FAE on some level — even as he insisted that it was making him miserable.
In most cases, FAE allow us to view ourselves in a certain (usually favorable) way. These become compelling reasons to continue investing in those beliefs. These motivations include:
- To look or be “good”
- To look or be “right”
- To be “better than” (someone or something)
- To know or understand (or feel like we know/understand) someone
- To feel bad (by being wronged, attacked, disrespected, or misunderstood)
Almost all of the roles we get to fulfill by buying into FAE fall into one of these main categories. We need to consciously notice those roles to understand why we buy into FAE in the first place.
The guiding question here is this:
What do you have to gain by attributing someone’s behavior to their character?
Without judging your intentions, ask yourself:
- What am I getting out of attributing this person’s behavior in this way?
- Who do they become when I attribute their behavior to their character?
- Who do I become?
- What gap opens up between me and the other person?
- What expectations does that gap create in my mind?
When you ask yourself those questions — and answer them honestly! — you’ll discover all sorts of fascinating insights. Suddenly, what seemed like a simple belief about another person becomes a powerful way to reinforce your very sense of self.
For example, you might find that:
- Believing that the Chevy Tahoe is a monster makes you the more considerate, enlightened person on the road.
- Assuming your sister doesn’t care about you when she didn’t return your call allows you to be the misunderstood and neglected sibling.
- Labeling the guy at work who talks too much in meetings as a self-interested blowhard makes you the more noble, self-aware colleague.
And so on.
Hidden within every attribution is an unspoken agreement.
The agreement is that you get to believe something about another person, and in exchange, you get to be or feel a certain way.
That agreement almost always serves our interests, whether those interests are fair or unfair, healthy or unhealthy. Those interests aren’t inherently bad, and I’m not saying they’re always wrong. But they’re rarely the full story, and they’re rarely worth the mental suffering that comes with them. We need to acknowledge that those agreements exist in order to understand why we’re attributing people’s behavior erroneously.
When we notice these benefits, we realize a painful truth: that we usually don’t attribute behaviors to understand people better, but to make ourselves feel better.
Once we see that, it becomes a lot harder to buy into the attribution. How badly do we need to be the enlightened person on the road? How much pain are we willing to trade to be the wronged sibling? How much do we need to tear our colleagues down to be the better employee?
These are the costs of our attribution errors. And they’re never worth it. Because at the end of the day, they’re rarely true. Or rather, they’re not the whole truth. And the whole truth is what we’re really after here. Which brings us to our final principle.
The gift of Fundamental Attribution Error.
Cognitive biases are incredibly tricky.
On the one hand, they seem like glitches in our machinery — built-in bugs that cause us to make serious mistakes. That’s the whole point of understanding and dissecting them: to make sure that we don’t fall prey to the hidden vulnerabilities in our brains.
But I actually think that there’s something more important going on here. I think our cognitive biases are really designed to make us understand ourselves and the world better.
Unpacking FAE isn’t just about avoiding it. It’s about using it to become sharper, fairer, more honest people. That’s the true purpose of a cognitive bias.
When we see how FAE betrays us, we actually get a glimpse of how much more accurately — how much more fairly — we can operate.
We see how different life would be without FAE. But we can only see that by looking beyond it. And that wouldn’t be possible if the human brain weren’t pre-loaded with this strange bias.
So this is the final principle here, and probably the most important one.
With enough commitment and self-awareness, we can use this dangerous quirk to our advantage.
How much can fundamental attribution error teach us? What does it show us about ourselves? How much better could we relate to other people if we consciously worked on overcoming it?
In my experience, a lot.
Like Dario, we can use FAE to understand our cognitive biases, and by understanding those biases, we can become the outstanding managers, partners, friends, leaders, colleagues and family members we want to be.
More important, we become the kind of people we want other people to be.
That’s the double-sided coin of FAE that always brings us back to ourselves.
Because our job isn’t just to attribute people’s behavior accurately. It’s also to attribute our own behavior accurately — and realize that our actions and other people’s actions, when we get down to it, can (and should!) be explained in the exact same way. Not as reflections of character, but as products of a complex world. We have to start appreciating that world more fully. When we do, we find that we also start appreciating other people more, too.
[Featured image by Kurt Bauschardt]