The Fundamental Attribution Error

Think of a moment in your life in which something bad occurred. In your mind, were you responsible or were the circumstances? Likewise, think of a problem that happened to someone you know. Was it their fault? Interestingly enough, trends show that people are more likely to blame circumstances when a mistake occurs personally – but they will blame the general attitude and disposition of another for similar mistakes.

There is a vast network of information that circulates throughout the human mind when dealing with social interactions. While I am not a trained psychologist, there are certain tendencies and assumptions made within the human brain that can be absolutely jarring to learn about – tendencies you would not be aware of unless pointed out and tendencies that are often automatic. One that is especially troubling is the fundamental attribution error (sometimes referred to as the correspondence bias or attribution effect).

Essentially, it is our tendency to over-credit the personality and disposition of a another person for why an event occurs and the tendency to downplay the circumstances. If you see Mike, a co-worker from the HR department you have only ever briefly spoken with, storming out of a room yelling at the top of his lungs, you may automatically assess his personality to be irritated, agitated, or generally disagreeable – when in fact anyone from his department would tell you he’s one of the calmest, open-minded, and relaxed people they know. That day may have been particularly stressful for him – a home-life issue affected him or a coworker pressed his buttons for instance. That was the actual reason behind his behavior that day, not his general personality. The attribution error may, however, taint your perception of Mike from that day onward even when you are aware of it.

This can be problematic in a social setting as our first and/or early impressions of a person can cloud our judgment. There was a week at an old part-time job where, thanks to my car being in the shop, I had to catch rides to work. I was about five minutes late every shift that week. Even though I was always punctual both before and after, it became a running joke there that I did not know how to read a clock for the two years I worked there. Any time I would clock in, some sort of comment was made. While that’s a very minor example, when put into practice with more serious situations it can become a very large topic of concern.

The center of the issue is that while you may yourself be able to grow in awareness and how you approach others, you can’t take your co-workers and classmates to a psychology seminar to make them see it too. It might be troubling to swallow, but having awareness of it can help you approach situations from a defensive mindset. While I always believe in giving your best wherever you work, that first month or two you may want to be certain that you are always giving your absolute peak quality of effort. Once those around you have established in their minds that you are always a hard worker, it will be a belief that will take a serious amount of effort to remove or alter.

I’m not saying manipulate the system – being underhanded is the quickest path to failure as far as I’m concerned – but it’s important to realize how people build impressions of you and how little those tend to change over time. Walking into your new job looking like a wreck will color the opinions of your managers and co-workers for possibly your entire stay there. At the very least it will make winning them over a more difficult endeavor.

This is where the idea of making connections and networking intelligently comes into play. People have the tendency when they see you to associate you with the place itself and the activities that happen there. While those are my own personal rules, what I am saying is take consideration in how people will see you. You never know who is going to be your next opportunity for a job. Even if the system is terrible, we have to navigate through it as best as possible.

So when considering what the fundamental attribution error is and how that can play directly into your life, remember the following: people will generally associate your actions with your personality. If you get into a heated argument with a co-worker mainly due to stress from your girlfriend, they will not give you that benefit of the doubt. The people around you will simply assume you are hotheaded. If you are late a few times, people may start to see you as always being late – even if you aren’t. However, the reverse can also be equally as true. If your initial impression upon another person is positive, they may continue to see you in a positive light. If your manager believes you to be a hard worker based on your initial effort, he may be more likely to forgive a mistake you make.

When you are out there, remember that people, for the most part, will not see you as transparently as you yourself do. Your personal life and how that affects your work and social performances will not be under consideration. Make the assumption that there are no excuses for how you behave and carry yourself with the dignity and respect you want others to see you with.


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