The Fundamental Attribution Error

“In social psychologyfundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the concept that, in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people tend to (unduly) emphasize the agent’s internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior. This effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.

Which is why such things aren’t significantly heritable – except that they are.  Reminds me of when my sophomore geometry teacher told me, at the beginning of the class: “You’ll do well.”  I asked how he could tell?  He said ” I taught your mother.”  He knew more than Lee Ross.

If we constructed the right PRS [an index of wishful thinking?] , social psychologists would, on average, have unusual scores.  In a better world, we would never employ that kind of person as a social psychologist.





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16 Responses to The Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. Space Ghost says:

    I’m not sure how practicing social psychologists use the term, but the way I’ve always heard it explained is with an example. You see a guy slam his car door and start cursing. Therefore you presume that he’s an angry person, a jerk, unstable, etc (internal characteristics). However when you slam your own car door, you know it’s because you forgot your briefcase at home and bumped your head on the way out and your wife is cheating on you (external factors)

    • Phille says:

      That’s just measurement error. It’s alright to assume he’s an angry jerk, as long as you have large error intervals. Which of course get progressively narrower the more information you have.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Lee Jussim has some interesting things to say about this in his book “Social Perception and Social Reality”. Highly recommended…

  2. Woof says:

    I know people who do despicable things on a regular basis but insist it isn’t who they really are. It gets very old very quickly. While there are exceptions, you really are what you do.

  3. I only hold my beliefs because I am a fearful, conceited, ignorant, preening bigot who cares naught for my fellow man. Liberals, on the other hand, seem to have compassionate, well-thought-out justifications for their beliefs. Worse for me, this is all likely heritable and there is little either of us can do to correct it.

  4. RCB says:

    It’s worth remembering that meiosis can produce a lot of within-family variation, even under very high heritability. In fact, that’s true even if a trait is perfectly heritable. After all, perfect heritability just implies that the phenotype depends only on the genotype, not that children perfectly resemble parents. In the case of random mating, half of all genetic variance in the whole population is contained within sib groups at equilibrium (more than half the std dev). Assortative mating and inbreeding reduce it below that, but it’s still there.

  5. RCB says:

    Seems more like philosophy than science. Suppose a guy is consistently unpleasant, regardless of how the world changes around him. Seems pretty fundamental to his being, you think. Ah, but maybe this fundamental nature is actually due to external environmental conditions that existed when he was a child, and had an important developmental effect on his personality. Entirely external – nothing fundamental to the person! But then you remember – the personality trait in question is almost perfectly heritable (say), so that’s probably not true. It’s probably nothing to do with the environment. But wait – a person’s genetic make up is determined by who their parents happen to be, plus chance, which is entirely external to the person, so surely it’s all external circumstance after all. …..

    So whether this idea is right or wrong seems to depend on what you define “external” to mean. Which sounds a lot like philosophy.

    • adreadline says:

      ”Ah, but maybe this fundamental nature is actually due to external environmental conditions that existed when he was a child, and had an important developmental effect on his personality. Entirely external – nothing fundamental to the person!”

      ”So whether this idea is right or wrong seems to depend on what you define “external” to mean. Which sounds a lot like philosophy.”

      From what I’ve gathered, according to Mr. Cochran and others, such external environmental conditions include whether he was hit on the head with a ball-peen hammer, or if he was deprived of iodine in his diet, or if he was occasionally fed flake white with a hint of elemental mercury, or if he grew up among CTE-inducing missile strikes… but do not include whether he listened to Baby Mozart, or if his parents read to him a lot, or if he was encouraged to believe in himself and follow his dreams! or if he went to a Good School™ built on Sailerian Magic Dirt.

      Sometimes it may get more complicated (though that was already mentioned before). Assume propensity for alcoholism is entirely genetic. That particular trait will not adversely affect the victim- I mean subject if he has no opportunity to get his hands on some booze. But the propensity is still there. You could have, in fact you possibly already have American football players who will not easily have their brains taken over by tangled tau protein even if they constantly headbutt their adversaries, and there are similarly CTE-resistant folks among the general population. That may or may not be correlated to their IQ. But how to find them? How to check if there is a correlation? Dropping them regularly, noggin first, onto the concrete floor and then checking their brains post-mortem?

      Anyway, that’s way too many words from someone like me. But yes, you raise a good point.

    • Jim says:

      Yes, as for as the question of free will it has long been recognized that it doesn’t matter philosophically to what extent the causes of behavior are genetic, pre-existing one’s conception, or environmental. For free will to make sense it seems that there has to be an autonomous will that can act as an original cause or “First Mover”. Such an entity doesn’t fit very well into a scientific conception of reality. Nevertheless we intuitively believe we have such an autonomous will.

      • William H. Stoddard says:

        We are able to model and predict our own future behavior, often using language. That makes linguistically encoded thought a self-referential system. The ability of such a system to predict its own future behavior is limited; you may get series of predictions that fail to converge (1, -1, 1, -1, 1, -1, …) or even diverge (1, -2, 4, -8, 16, -32, …). If you think of “making a convergent series of predictions of future behavior” as equivalent to “making a choice,” you get most of the phenomenology of “free will,” I think. In particular, if you don’t tell me your prediction, it may work out; but if you communicate it to me, you’ve included me in the system and then I can defeat your prediction.

  6. William H. Stoddard says:

    What is “PRS” an acronym for? I looked at Wikipedia and couldn’t find any interpretation that made sense.

  7. Dividualist says:

    It is extremely weird that they think that when we judge ourselves and others differently, our judgement about ourselves is correct and therefore the judgement about others is incorrect. Why would the judgement about ourselves be correct? They never heard of self-serving thinking, rationalizations, grasping for justifications etc. ?

    Our judgement about others can also be incorrect, but on the whole better. I mean, the whole jury thing in the US. 12 random people who are not even legal experts. If people would judge themselves, everybody would be found innocent. Hence nemo iudex in causa sua. The jury at least finds some people guilty and some people innocent which is surely more correct than everybody being innocent which would happen if we would judge ourselves.

    How comes the social psychologists don’t get it? The whole success of the jury system means if there is no specific reason to be prejudiced, people tend to judge others correctly. Therefore, when we attribute other people’s behavior to their character, we are mostly correct, and when we attribute our own behavior to circumstances, we are just making excuses.

  8. MSG says:

    To ourselves, our own character is something that is with us all the time, and is pretty much as well known as it ever will be. It is in a sense a constant, and we learn (or think we learn) nothing if we were to explain something new, a variable — such as some recent act of ours — in terms of this constant. So we focus on what is new, the circumstances. Irritable drunks surely know that they are irritable drunks, but when asked to explain why they punched someone, they find it more profitable to explain their act in terms of what exactly provoked them. After all, they don’t always punch everyone, not even when drunk. But when we are examining the behavior of others, especially strangers, we lack anything like the same amount of knowledge of character. So we grab what evidence we can and do the best we can with that evidence, however flimsy. After all, it is very difficult — I would think impossible — to assess the effect of circumstances in the absence of any knowledge of character. So when we are judging ourselves, we have the significant advantage of much greater knowledge, but the significant disadvantage of corruption from vanity. When we judge others, we have a much weaker empirical base, but are also much less susceptible to the corruptions of vanity.

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