• Joumana Elomar

Misreading Behaviour: The Fundamental Attribution Error

Ever been late to an interview? Or had your internet disconnect in a meet with a new client? If so, chances are you were freaking out and aware of how they might perceive you. The power of perception goes far. However, science suggests there are number of mistakes we can make when we first form impressions and try to decode behaviour.


One of the biggest mistakes we can make is the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's when we underestimate the influence of a situation on a person's behaviour. Or in simpler terms, we attribute something that happened to a person's personality rather than the situation.


Let's say you're interviewing a person for a role. Your interviewee is running late. What's your gut feel? You might think they're unreliable, disorganised or not very passionate about the role. But what if they're running late because you accidentally wrote the wrong time in the email? Or what if their car broke down on the way over? How does that impact your impression? For many people, it changes things.


Unlike this scenario, most of the time when we form impressions we're unaware of the entire situation. So that can lead us to make errors in judgment. So what exactly are these impressions based on? And what can do to reduce errors in our judgments?


Making Attributions

As human beings, we often find ourselves trying to decode the way people behave. In psychology, one way we do this is Attribution theory. It's when we credit the behaviour of others to either internal dispositions (personality) or external situations, or a combination of the two.


Whenever we do this, we incorporate three types of information:

  1. Consensus: Do others regularly behave this way in this situation?

  2. Consistency: Does this person regularly behave this way in this situation?

  3. Distinctiveness: Does this person behave this way in many other situations?

So using these three factors, we tend to form a judgment around a person's character. While this is an oversimplification, it gives us an idea what we often weigh up unconsciously. But perception isn't just a one-way street.

Power of self-fulfilling prophecies

The power of perception goes both ways. According the science, there's some evidence behind self-fulfilling prophecies. This is when we believe something will happen and our expectations influence our own or other's behaviour.


In psychology, this phenomenon is called the Pygmalion effect. Basically, if someone believes we are likely to succeed, they might treat us differently to help us achieve those goals. In turn, when someone expects us to succeed, we try our best to meet those expectations. So there's a two-way relationship to perception, where what we think of others (and the impressions we signal to them) can impact how they behave.


So how might this play out in real life? In 1968, behaviour psychologist Robert Rosenthal gave high school students IQ tests cleverly disguised as "academic blooming tests". They tested their IQ and then the researchers randomly selected a few kids and told the teachers they were "bloomers" and academically gifted. A year later, they returned and retested the students. The "bloomers" showed significant improvements in their IQ scores, suggesting that having a teacher believe they were gifted played a role in shifting their results.


You can imagine the impacts of this across our schooling system, our work environments and our relationships. Any situation or person we find ourselves interacting with is vulnerable to this effect. So how can reduce making errors in judgment?


How to reduce errors

To reduce errors in judgement, we can use these three strategies:

  1. Cost-benefit analysis. Ask yourself. What's the cost of thinking this way? What do I lose? And what do I gain? By pausing to assess the longer term consequences of the impression, you can reduce how this error plays out.

  2. Employ empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Try to imagine you're in their situation and what the explanations could be. By cultivating an empathetic worldview, this can reduce how quickly you form judgments about situations. For example, if you're running late to a Zoom call because your internet has disconnected, how would you want the other person to respond?

  3. Focus on the positive. If you find yourself feeling resentful towards a person that you need to spend time with, try to remind yourself of their better qualities. By focusing the positive, you can help shift the attribution error.

It's worth noting that the Fundamental Attribution Error is really difficult to shift and may be impossible to entirely remove as it's so deeply embedded in our psyche. But trying to employ these strategies in situations where the error doesn't benefit you, it can help you make better decisions.


Tying it up

As human beings, forming impressions is something we do everyday. When we form them, there are a series of errors we can make. A common mistake is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is when we underemphasise how the situation impacts a person's behaviour. By pausing to consider the consequences, it can help us shift this perspective and make better choices.