In Social Psychology, what is Fundamental Attribution Error?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The fundamental attribution error is a common type of cognitive bias in social psychology. Essentially, it involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone's behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors. The flip side of this error is the actor-observer bias, in which people tend to over-emphasize the role of a situation in their behaviors and under-emphasize the role of their own personalities.

A driver getting mad at the driver directly in front of her might be making a fundamental attribution error.
A driver getting mad at the driver directly in front of her might be making a fundamental attribution error.

Some people think of this cognitive bias as one of the root principles in social psychology. It illustrates several interesting things about cognitive biases, like the fact that people tend to consider their own behavior in a different light than the behavior of others. It also illustrates the brain's genuine desire to understand a situation and the behavior that occurred in that situation in a logical way. The fundamental attribution error can also lead to other cognitive biases.

For an example of this type error at work, a person can imagine himself walking down a crowded sidewalk, carrying loaded bags from shops. If someone bumps into him, he is probably inclined to think “what an idiot! That person has no respect for others, he clearly saw me!” In this assessment of the other person's behavior, the individual fails to consider situational factors, like someone else bumping into that person or the first person's failure to realize that his bags are taking up more room than he thinks they are, thus forcing people to bump into him as they try to get around him.

Many people want to understand the reasons for human behavior, out of a natural curiosity and in an effort to avoid uncomfortable situations. Cognitive biases are one way that the brain processes human behavior; although a cognitive bias is often wrong, it can provide quick information about a situation that will allow the person to make a rapid decision. People should be careful to be aware of cognitive biases, however, so that they can consider that a behavior might have more than one explanation.

To avoid making the fundamental attribution error, one of the best things an individual can do is “put himself in the other person's shoes,” as the old saying goes. By thinking about what he might do in the same situation, the person might come up with some situational factors for a behavior that could shed more light on the subject. Awareness of this common cognitive bias can help a person look for hidden behavioral factors, making him a better observer and better able to read people and situations. When an individual is trying to explain his own behavior, he should avoid indulging the actor-observer effect, and make sure to give his personality some credit.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


A comparison to Palin's politically blunders is quiet irresponsible. I cannot stress enough how a fundamental attribution error has not occurred through media towards Palin.

With much evidence it has be shown that Palin has made mistakes, tried to be a celebrity, and cannot make decisions as a leader. I used to like Palin. But as time passes, events have shown why Palin is under qualified for Presidency, not fundamental attribution error with the media.


Crispety- Sometimes I see the fundamental attribution error occurring in teachers. Some say that the teacher will make a judgment regarding a student based on some actions.

For example, a gifted student that produces average grades is seen as lazy by the teacher. However there could be a very good explanation. The student might be bored in the classroom and might need more challenging workload, or the child might suffer from a learning disability that prevents him or her from absorbing certain information.

Sometimes people have the misconception that gifted students are gifted in every subject and that's not correct. There are times when gifted students also suffer from learning disabilities which is not always caught because the teacher assumes that the child is being the lazy because they have shown exceptional abilities in other areas.


Moldova- I agree with you. What I don’t understand is how the media claims that Sarah Palin does not have enough executive experience to be President, but she was a Mayor and a Governor.

Obama became President and only served a few years as a Senator and was a Community organizer for Acorn before that.

The media viewed his eloquent speaking style as him having superior intelligence and leadership skills. They attributed more traits to Obama, but in actuality Sarah Palin, has far more executive experience and more qualified for the position based on experience.


SurfNturf-I could not agree with you more. I think the very fact that the media pursues Sarah Palin means that they find her somewhat threatening. Many of the same things were said about President. Reagan.

People criticized him because he was a Hollywood actor, but he was also the governor of California much like how Sarah Palin was the governor of Alaska.

In addition, the media mocked Ronald Reagan and said he was not intelligent because of the fact that he was a Hollywood actor.

However, President Reagan not only grew 20 million jobs during his presidency but was instrumental in the fall of communism of eastern Germany and all of the Soviet Union.

To this day his legacy remains one of the most powerful of our nation’s history. So clearly judging someone by a specific action is a very big error in human judgment.


Suntan12-I think sometimes people in the media also display a fundamental attribution error.

Although the media is supposed to be unbiased, often the reporter's very own bias can be interpreted by the angle of the story. For example, if the reporter knows of an unflattering story regarding a politician that he or she favors, he or she may not report the story even though this would be considered news.

The reporter may however judge a politician of a different party more harshly when they may have performed a political blunder.

For example, most of the media has portrayed Sarah Palin, as an inexperienced politician that could not possibly qualify for the presidency.

She gave an interview to Katie Couric in which she performed poorly. This interview was the justification that many in the media had for portraying Sarah Palin as an inexperienced politician.

Her error in this interview made the media create their own judgment on her intelligence and capacity to be president without even getting to know the woman themselves.

This is fundamental attributional error. Sarah Palin might have been nervous.


Anon88231-think I understand your question. The writer was pointing out that the attribution theory is really a fundamental attribution error psychology phenomenon.

The writer was pointing out that while this form of critical psychology towards another is in itself an error we can change our viewpoints and our perspective to try to understand another point of view.

Fundamental attribution error studies indicate that people are judged by the actions that they take and not their environmental or social aspects of who they are.

For example if you are hosting a party and a guest shows up very late your immediate reaction is that the person must be rude.

Any judgment on their personality is based on the action that they showed you.

You don't consider however, that the person may have had traffic or may have had a problem that caused them to be as late as they were. This is the very example of fundamental attribution error definition.


Is it not a fact that people do tend to attribute one's behavior to his or her character while dismissing much of the situational causes? The above is written as though it is not an error but rather a perspective.

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