This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When social psychologists began to study attribution they found most people had a tendency to explain negative things about themselves by blaming forces beyond their control. In other words, they blamed the situation. Poor behavior of other people, however, was typically blamed on the person.

What is the "fundamental attribution error?"

In general, people tend to make an "external" attribution of their own behavior and an "internal" attribution of other people's behavior. Often there is no evidence to justify this type of attribution, but it is very common, so this cognitive bias is called the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977).

Consider the plight of homeless people. If you found yourself on the street without a place to stay, then (according to the fundamental attribution error) you would probably say you were not at fault. You would think you were homeless because of forces beyond your control: being fired from a job, being asked to pay rents which were too high, or just having a run of bad luck. However, if you saw another person who was homeless, then (if you were typical) you might blame that person. You might think, "That person should get a job" or "That person is probably a drug addict."

How did Nisbett and colleagues document the fundamental attribution error among students?

Nisbett and colleagues documented the fundamental attribution error (sometimes called the actor-observer bias) by asking male students to write down things they liked about the women they were dating, or the academic major they had chosen. First they answered questions about themselves, then they answered the same questions about their best friend's romantic and academic choices.

The results showed that subjects tended to explain their own behavior in terms of external influences. For example, a student might report selecting a particular academic major because the job opportunities were good. However, the same subject was likely to explain the best friend's choices in terms of personal qualities. For example, the best friend would be described as picking a major based upon his or her academic strengths or weaknesses. This fits the pattern of the fundamental attribution error because other people's decisions are attributed to inner factors, while one's own behavior is attributed to external factors.

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