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.
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.