Fundamental attribution error

When an incident or an event occurs (whether negative or positive) the tendency to place a significant amount of blame on a persons personality or characteristics rather than situational factors is quite a common one. This is because we tend to focus more on the person involved by assuming that a person is responsible due to their personality/characteristics and not the conditions around them that they could not have had control over in the first place. This phenomena is what you call the fundamental attribution error.

An example of fundamental attribution error is when you see someone driving and swerving and crashing into a tree, automatically you would think ''what is this person doing?!'' or ''this person is actually crazy?!'' but the real reason for the accident was not because of the person directly but because a pedestrian ran into the road and so to avoid hitting the pedestrian the driver hit the brakes whilst steering round them where their tyres slipped over a wet patch on the road causing the crash. As an observer watching the whole thing take place you would most likely blame the person driving for being reckless if you had not have known what contributed to the crash. The truth is that these multiple factors such as the surprise pedestrian, the wet patch in the road, etc, would have caused the crash regardless of who was behind the wheel, so it wouldn't have just taken a reckless personality to crash the car in this scenario.



 A second example of the fundamental attribution error is when you ask a stranger for directions but they give you a seemingly snarky response or they're simply rude to you. Naturally you would peg this person as rude and having a bad personality, but looking past their initial first impression they may have had a bad day putting them in a foul mood or they've just received some devastatingly bad news and you were the first person they have come into contact with since receiving this news. They acted the way they did not because of their natural personality (most people are generally polite to strangers) but their circumstances made them act they way they did, in this case it was just having a bad day which was the cause.

The study of human behaviorThough there hasn't been one widely accepted causal reason for the fundamental attribution error there has been several theories which have been associated with being a root cause for why people are quicker to blame character traits for their circumstances rather than situational factors. One of the reasons is due to culture; for instance western cultures where people who are more individualistic tend to emphasize the individual over situational factors so they are  

more prone to fundamental attribution error as opposed to people from non-western cultures who tend to emphasize context and situational factors over the individual so they are less prone to the error. A study conducted by social psychologists Michael W. Morris and Kaiping Peng where they tested the hypothesis of a bias toward individual autonomy in American western culture while in there was a bias toward collective or contextual factors in Chinese eastern culture, in the experiment the participants where they were asked to watch an animated cartoon of swimming fish where one fish deviates from several other fish. In the experiment the animation was designed so that it was ambiguous whether the fish was a coordinated group influencing the behaviour of the lone fish or the lone fish acted on its own preference. Over several studies with different sets of participants both Morris and Peng confirmed their hypothesis with the western participants believing the fish acting on its own accord while most of the eastern participants believed the fish acted due to other factors outside of the individual fish.

The just world hypothesis is another possible reason for the fundamental attribution error where people have the belief that people get what they deserve whether good or bad, so if someone finds themselves in a car crash then most people believe that the person involved must have had it coming to them, conversely if someone has won a new car then most people would believe that they deserve it. In either case the just world hypothesis suggests that people in general believe that people get what they deserve. Social psychologist Melvin Lerner conducted an experiment where a group of participants watched a video of a subject complete a set of tasks where when they got a task wrong they would receive an electric shock. The subject pretended to get an electric shock of course. Lerner found that the participants had a low opinion of the subject saying that the subject deserved it and berated their appearance and character. Lerner concluded that the sight of the subject suffering ''electric shocks'' or their general misfortune motivated the participants to devalue the subject to bring about a more appropriate fit between their fate and their characteristics.



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