Why We Don’t Give Each Other a Break: Annoyed? Peeved? The Fundamental Attribution Error Explains It All.
MODERN DAY FAIRYTALE
Once upon a time and from a hazy distance, Rose could hear the alarm ringing. Or was it so? Could it be 5:50 a.m. already?! Thank heavens, it’s Friday.
That bloody nightclub in the open was playing loud music again just across the street. It was past three in the morning when they finished. They had a celebrity guest again or whatever. Rose no longer kept track. She just knew she was losing sleep because of it.
Relieved it was Friday at least, she went to take a shower. As she got in, a gust of freezing water poured down on her. Oh, no, Rose, you forgot to turn on the bloody heater again. How could you?! OK, never mind! Just get on with it and hope you don’t get sick during the day. And then an even colder realisation – it’s not even Friday today. It’s only Thursday!
Still not being fully awake, she dressed, took her car keys and left the apartment. Her ears were still ringing from the loud music from across the street last night. As she reached her car, she saw that an idiot had blocked her!
Of course, it was the self-righteous dude who always had to make a stop right there where he blocked two cars simultaneously. But why me?! And why today?! To make matters even worse, I am late!
As she reached work, the ever-annoying co-worker and boss’s pet started babbling some nonsense about how his old mum made this or that for lunch (as if she cared!).
And that’s when finally Rose snapped! Words she said, and she said plenty of them. And pleasant they were – not.
Naturally, she turned out to be the rude, impolite, and impertinent, even a discriminating (?!) you know what and so long and so forth. Not my day definitely!
Modern-day society has brought about so many complexities we need to face and deal with on a daily basis.
There are so many things we are trying to process and understand that we sometimes lose track of what is going on behind the (figurative) curtain.
The fact that we get lost in our imagination sometimes leads to certain conclusions which often turn out not to be true.
When given certain inputs, and specifically when given an insufficient one, we start creating conclusions which are commonly astray.
While passing by a park, you hear a child crying, and you deduce how spoilt it is. What if the child had fallen off a bike a few seconds ago but you didn’t witness the act?
Whatever the situation, our brain seems to be programmed to make its own conclusions and choices whether we like it or not and no matter if the original input is complete.
Upon being presented or faced with a situation, we inevitably reach a conclusion which somehow seems to be the logical one at the given moment even if we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Our capacity to make such faulty conclusions is a quality which is characteristic of every human being. Throughout the article, we will try to point out some of the key notions concerning this topic.
THE BIRTH OF FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR
During the 1960s, the psychology was already a well-established science with multiple disciplines. Much research was made and experiments conducted all with the goal of studying the human mind in detail.
Though the field was thriving, many experiments which were conducted then are considered somewhat unethical from the present-day point of view.
Hereinafter, we will briefly comment on one of the rather interesting experiments performed during the sixties.
Some of the people who were interested in studying the field deeper were the American psychologists, teacher and student, Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris respectively.
They were interested in social psychology which deals with how somebody’s presence (real or imaginary) influences somebody else’s thoughts and feelings.
To get some specific results in their study, they conducted a bit atypical experiment.
The idea behind their experiment was to show how people freely ascribe behaviours to natural disposition and chance directed behaviours to the situation.
So, what Jones and Harris did was distributing essays on Fidel Castro (quite an important topic at the time!) that the subjects had to read and then make a conclusion about how much the author likes or dislikes Castro.
Since the subjects believed that the authors of the articles wrote, i.e. read, cons or pros based on their own opinions, they rated those with positive comments as supporting Castro and those with negative ones as opposing Castro.
However, when subjects were told that the authors randomly received the task to write pros and cons, they still on average claimed that those who wrote pros are “fans” of Fidel Castro.
So, the subjects in this experiment almost completely disregarded the situational factor even though they knew the circumstances under which the authors wrote and they projected some internal attribution towards the writers.
A few years after Jones and Harris’s experiment, another American psychologist, Lee Ross, who was also interested in social psychology, coined the phrase fundamental attribution error.
In his paper, Ross argued how fundamental attribution error represents the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.
WHAT IS THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR?
Before we shift our focus to the Fundamental Attribution Error, there is another psychological term we need to explain which will help us understand the concept we are dealing with.
The point of our current concern is attribution theory.
It is a concept developed in the early 20th century which explains how people are prone to attribution, i.e. the process in which the individuals explain the causes of behaviour and events.
The explanation models in these processes are also known as the attribution theory.
The attribution theory manifests itself as internal and external. The internal type is also known as dispositional attribution.
It is a process where we perceive certain internal characteristics as causes of somebody’s behaviour, disregarding the external factor in the process.
On the contrary, external attribution is also called situational attribution. This process refers to interpreting someone’s behaviour as being caused by the situation that the individual is in, leaving no place for internal influences.
So, to simplify, attribution theory states that we have a tendency to explain someone’s behaviour in terms of their personality and disposition (Internal), or in terms of the situation (External).
Now that we have got acquainted with the attribution theory, we can move on to fundamental attribution error. So, what may fundamental attribution error be?
Fundamental attribution error is a concept in social psychology that explains how people tend to (unjustly) emphasize the agent’s internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behaviour, as opposed to interpreting their own actions.
This concept is also known as attribution effect or the correspondence bias.
To make the concept more understandable we can say that the fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging the behaviour of other people.
This is precisely why the fundamental attribution error explains how we more often so than not prone to judge others harshly while letting ourselves easily off the hook by rationalizing our own unethical behaviour.
The notion of how we make the fundamental attribution error about other people but rarely ourselves is a rather interesting one.
When we do things, we always have a good reason. It’s other people we see as faulty.
This tendency of ours to rationalize our behaviour while ridiculing and judging someone else’s is best explained as fundamental attribution bias.
This is the characteristic recognized in any human being.
If you are still having some doubts about terminology, note the keyword in the concept might be the word error. We mentioned already how we unjustly emphasize somebody else’s faulty behaviour.
This is precisely why we are erroneous here, in a way of speaking, since we are making a big mistake by making conclusions about the behaviour of others without knowing what they are dealing with currently.
HOW DOES FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR WORK – REAL LIFE EXAMPLES
Fundamental attribution error is a rather interesting concept we can come across on a daily basis.
From art stereotypes to everyday situation, the examples are beyond count.
Before we go into some additional examples which are typically encountered, let us go back to our Modern Fairytale from the beginning of the article.
1. Rose and the Co-Workers
Our modern hero Rose has been struggling with a rather serious situation. Lack of sleep is a real issue especially taking into consideration the fast way of life people live today.
So, this is already a trigger for Rose to be edgy and wanting to be left alone. Additionally, no hot water, realising there is one more day before the weekend additional cause Rose to be irritable.
The situation was only worsened by getting late to work and being bothered by the irrelevant details of someone domestic life. So, how come that Rose turned out to be the villain in the story?
Well, that is quite easy. Rose’s colleagues (and their psychology at work), being fully unaware of the external situation she had been dealing with for days, jumped to a conclusion. This conclusion of theirs was a completely erroneous one.
They simply attributed her behaviour to her intrinsic quality of being a bad person.
In the process, they disregarded the possibility of an external stimulus causing Rose’s outburst.
2. Tom and the Exams
Judged by his classmates, Tom has been struggling with exams for quite some time now. Specifically, the calculus was giving him so much trouble.
His classmates also observed that he seems as completely uninterested to finish his graduate studies. What additionally confuses them is the fact that he used to be such a brilliant student and a great friend who managed to stay optimistic no matter what.
On the other hand, Tom is genuinely sick and tired of everything. When he goes back to his dorm after class, if he attended it in the first place, he just wants to crawl back in bed and be left alone.
His younger sister has eloped with a local junkie, the mother is worried sick, the father is almost unaware of the situation, being sedated half of the time due to a failing kidney.
Tom feels like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and it’s a heavy burden for a twenty-year-old.
This is why his interest in studying has faded. He is giving his best, but he’s just had enough of everything.
As we can see, Tom’s friends are not aware of the situation that he has found himself in. They just see what lies on the surface.
For them, Tom became lazy and uncaring, even irresponsible since he is disregarding his studies.
On the other hand, they are missing the deeper truth, and that is that Tom just can’t handle juggling with so many issues at the same time.
Here, Tom’s friends are making a serious mistake (i.e. fundamental attribution error) attributing his failure to pass calculus to his internal quality of being lazy and interested.
They are so easily disregarding the possibility that he might be in a rather difficult situation. They judge him, without even thinking that all he needs is their silent but open support in dealing with a stressful situation.
3. Kate and the Parents’ Association
It was Thursday afternoon and Kate was late for the parents’ association meeting in her daughter’s school.
The point of the meeting was to discuss the play children were supposed to perform and the parents were in charge of the costumes.
What additionally aggravates the fact that Kate is late is that her daughter is the leading role.
Just a few minutes before Kate left for the meeting, her husband came back home from work. He was dead drunk again.
Fourth day in a row.
Moreover, as he tried to step out of the car, she didn’t know how he was able to drive in the first place, he tripped and fell and got a big bloody bruise across the forehead.
It took time until she finally dragged him inside the house, cleaned the wound and put to bed before he upsets the children.
And then she had to put on her perfect smile and come up with an excuse as to why she was late.
Other parents almost immediately judged Kate as an irresponsible, uncaring, and undeserving mother. How dare she not show up on time to arrange the details for a play in which her daughter is the lead role?!
And she comes with some stupid excuse of a flat tire. Didn’t her tire go flat two weeks ago when she was also late for the parents’ association meeting? How irresponsible of her!
What the other parents are missing here is the fact how Kate’s life is almost falling apart.
She’s contemplating a divorce from an alcoholic, though not (yet) abusive husband, thus becoming a single mother of two working only part-time at a local pizza place.
They are making the fundamental attribution error here since they are disregarding the tough life Kate is currently faced with, and not by her choice.
They perceive her as an uncaring mother simply because she showed up late, not knowing how she was, in fact, protecting their children from an unpleasant and disappointing situation.
4. Fundamental Attribution Error in Art
Besides occurrences in every-day life, fundamental attribution error is also commonly found in art.
Specifically, films are a perfect example of how human nature is shown as stereotypical, where bad people do bad things just because they are bad.
Take the film Minority Report as an example. In this dystopian sci-fi thriller, the lead character, John Anderton (portrayed by Tom Cruz) becomes the main villain of the story after certain complications in the plotline.
As the Precogs forecast, John is supposedly going to kill someone in the near future so the entire PreCrime department is determined to find him.
They are only familiar with the outcome, but they disregard the reasons behind. They were quick to jump to the conclusion of how Anderton needs to be eliminated as a threat to their society, not seeing the fault in the system.
This is how they make the fundamental mistake since the outlining reasons for Anderton’s behaviour were excluded as a possibility.
They merely concluded that there has been a shift in his nature and he now needs to be dispensed with since he became a threat to the existing order.
Now that we are fully familiar with the concept of the fundamental attribution error, why indeed we do not give each other a break?
Why is it that we always find a way to justify own mistakes or wrong behaviour but are so quick to judge others when they display the same behaviour pattern?
How come that we need to be forgiven and excused every time we are late for work, while someone else is the irresponsible and immature one?
Why do we need to be pitied or understood every time we cut off someone while driving, and when others do the same they either can’t drive or are rude and inconsiderate?
There is a (somewhat) religious saying, Good moves in mysterious ways.
For the purpose of this article, allow me to modify the proverb – Mind moves and works in mysterious ways.
Indeed, no matter how hard we tried to understand how our mind works, there is always something which makes us go back to the beginning.
Every time we think how we have (finally) established a pattern of how our brain works, it always surprises us by reacting differently when exposed to the same stimulus as multiple times before, thus breaking the pattern we built.
One thing is certain, years will pass and psychologists and other scientists will still be busy studying the human brain.
What we have all noticed so far is the fact that our brain inevitably links certain stimuli with (sometimes inadequate) conclusions.
This involuntary action of our mind, i.e. the fact that we make wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence, is a well-known psychological concept.
It is mostly relevant and used in social psychology and is defined as Fundamental Attribution Error, attribution effect or the correspondence bias.
The fundamental attribution error explains how biased we are when making conclusions about the behaviours of others and our own behaviours.
If we talk about others, it is always their nature that causes their unethical or otherwise wrong and unacceptable behaviour. If we are being inappropriate, or ill-behaved, it is always the set of unfavourable circumstances which determines our actions.
It is never our nature!
And precisely due to this existing opposition, why is it that we cannot apply the same principle in both cases?
How can we be so unwilling to accept our own flaws and defects, and insisting instead how “perfect” we are and it is never our fault?
Why do we have to think “Jack is such a jerk” every time he is being impolite, instead of asking whether he needs our help with something?
So, since we are so eager to justify ourselves, maybe sometimes we can take a deeper look and see if somebody else is also struggling with a tough situation and offer them help and consolation.
When it comes to attacking others and justifying ourselves, it’s as if we are completely different person.
A man is a social being, and he needs support and approval from others.
So, every now and then, instead of judging someone, maybe we should ask ourselves what happens if we end up in the same situation. It’s not pleasant, isn’t it?
Be there one for another. We are not supposed to be alone and to go through life without support and understanding. Do not make the fundamental attribution error by quickly judging somebody’s character when you haven’t walked in their shoes.
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