The Fundamental Attribution Error – Assuming others’ wins or losses are due primarily to personality traits without fully considering how situational factors contribute to their behavior.

Our Brain Takes Shortcuts  

We rarely have all of the information when it comes to understanding others and why they make the decisions that they make.  This lack of understanding does not sit well with our brains. We have evolved to crave certainty and a desire to know why other people behave the way they do.*  However, to achieve this certainty, we would typically have to spend a lot of time and mental effort to peel back the reasons for other people’s behavior.  

To save time and energy, our brains apply heuristics or mental short cuts, which help our brain ascribe reasons for other people’s actions. As useful as these short cuts can be, they can also be damaging when they are incorrect, misinformed or just too simplified to really describe the complexity that most decisions are made in. This can lead to misunderstandings in the workplace, tension amongst colleagues, and policies that backfire. 

The Fundamental Attribution Error 

One common type of cognitive error that our brains make in this situation is called the fundamental attribution error (FAE). When we try to understand someone else’s actions, we tend to assume other’s negative outcomes are a result of their personality.  Our brains assume that they are lazy, or not smart enough, or that they didn’t try and fail to fully consider the impact of situational factors on their results.  Interestingly, when others experience success, our brains often attribute their success to luck and situational factors (i.e., they got a head start or were on the easier course).** 

The FAE occurs as we try to understand how others arrive at certain outcomes. In the corporate world, this can have a negative impact because when we judge a co-worker for missing deadlines, we might jump to the conclusion that they are lazy or lack time management skills. In reality, there are a multitude of situational factors at play that we are unaware of. 

When Tension Arises 

One very negative aspect that can arise with FAE is when it is combined with another common human bias, which is our in-group favorability.  This in-group bias underscores the fact that we tend to think more highly and are more forgiving of people that we see as part of our in-group.  It’s often easier for individuals to understand members of one’s “in-group,” rather than members of one’s “out-group.”

We have more knowledge of “in-group” members and their daily experiences. This makes it easy to understand when outside factors influence productivity, and we are less likely to apply the Fundamental Attribution Error. This can be more difficult with “out-groups” because we have limited knowledge on their day-to-day, their workload, or any organizational issues they must overcome. Therefore, our brains are more likely to apply the FAE towards people in “out-groups.”  

We can see how this could create significant issues for organizations.  

For managers, attribution errors can lead to unfair performance reviews, passing a quality candidate up for employment, or unfair policies that push out top talent – just because they fall into an “out group.” When an “out group” employee’s performance is not on par during their yearly performance review, their manager may be quick to assume the employee failed to put in the effort needed to meet expectations. 

Beyond Bias: Mitigating FAE 

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the impact of FAE. When organizations foster psychological safety, employees are more open to expressing their true selves to the group.  By creating an atmosphere where people can be themselves, we gain greater insight into their personality and motives, thus reducing the need to make assumptions about why they did something (i.e., they become more of an in-group).  Additionally, psychological safety allows people to feel safe to bring up issues or contexts that may negatively impact their performance – again, providing a deeper insight to why the outcome happened the way it did.  

Another way of reducing FAE inside organizations is providing managers with training and coaching on how to provide effective feedback.  One of the key aspects of FAE is that it reduces the mental effort needed to get to the root cause of the behavior.  Effective feedback doesn’t take that shortcut.  Training managers to dig into the root cause of an issue and identify other factors that impact performance, forces them to look past the initial gut reaction of applying FAE to people’s intentions.  When we teach managers to look deeper into the context that the behavior is happening in, they often find that the issue is not with someone’s lack of effort or skill but has to do with outside factors.    

The Lantern Group

The Lantern Group specializes in applying behavioral science insights to positively influence behavior change within organizations for decades. We know how important effective communication is to organizational success. Our team takes a holistic approach to crafting organizational communications and training – we fuse visual design and behavioral science to create messages and insights that resonate with employees and help shed light on the reasons we do what we do. Contact us today to find out how we can help your organization! 

*This evolutionary factor goes to trying to make sure we understand other’s motives as it relates to our overall safety.  Note that one of the biggest threats that our ancient ancestors faced was other people in the tribe.  We needed to understand how they were feeling and why they behaved the way they did to ensure that we stayed on their good side or could predict their behaviors.   

**It has been hypothesized that we attribute others success to luck to help maintain a positive self-image of ourselves.  We don’t like the cognitive discomfort that comes to thinking that maybe we are not as good as someone else.