Understanding The Fundamental Attribution Error For Better Life Coaching

In the last article, we examined how, depending on which side you are on, both sides of an interpersonal conflict can leave believing the other side is a “jerk.”

While that might seem a bit unfair to some people, this story illustrates a concept called “The Fundamental Attribution Error” that is very familiar to people who study the behavior of other people. Let’s make that fancy name simpler.

The process is fundamental. Everyone does it. It is also an error because most people make mistakes when they judge the behavior of others. The attribution part simply means that we attribute (credit) other people with a variety of incorrect thoughts or characteristics.

As in the example mentioned above, we all think we have reasons for our behavior. The error is that we rarely believe that the other person also has reasons for his or her behavior. We simply see the behavior and attribute some kind of character problem to the other person. WE have reasons; THEY are simply stupid, jerks, insane, thoughtless, etc. Pick your favorite characteristic 🙂

We know that a situation can change our behavior. We behave one way if we have had enough sleep, we aren’t hungry and we aren’t overly stressed. When we are tired, hungry and stressed, we may not behave in a nice way, but that is only because of the situation. We try to explain that to other people, but guess what?

They are thinking that they have reasons for their behavior – but YOU are stupid, a jerk, insane, thoughtless, etc.

Think about it: If someone cuts you off on the highway, you may have some less than pleasant reactions. Later, you swerve to keep from hitting a driver who suddenly starts to move into your lane. You know you have a reason for swerving, but what do you think the person in the next lane thinks? How do you know that the person who cut in front of you earlier didn’t have to suddenly swerve, just as you did?

When we judge the behavior of other people, we need to take into consideration that those people generally have reasons for that behavior. You might not think the reasons are valid. You may disagree with the ideas behind that reasoning, but other people do generally have reasons for why they do what they do, just like you also have reasons for what you do.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is based on the observation that very few people can recognize or understand the reasoning behind the behavior of others. Rather than bothering to think about the possible underlying reasons for their behavior, we attribute some kind of general characteristic to them. We don’t give them credit for having a reason and acting on that reason.

The flip side of this is that we think people realize we have reasons for what we do. If you think about the examples, you will realize that other people aren’t considering your reasons. Only you are doing that. They don’t think you have a reason. You know you do.

Maybe, just maybe, the next time you start judging someone else’s behavior, you might want to stop and think about how they are judging yours! That might be a good time to talk about your mutual reasons, so you both can understand each other better.