The fundamental attribution error, also termed as a cognitive bias in social psychology, or the attribution theory of social psychology, is defined as the tendency to judge a person in an unpleasant situation in a bad light, and attribute her/his behavior to internal causes and qualities rather than understanding the situation or circumstances that may cause the person to behave in that manner. On the other hand, were we to make the same errors, we would easily attribute the causes to external factors. It is described as the overestimation of the attributes of another person’s personality and the underestimation of our own personal qualities in relation to a particular situation. The fundamental attribution error definition is something that can be better understood by means of some examples.
To answer this question about judging people in a negative way and labeling them assholes we need to understand the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)and first impression bias. While the fundamental attribution error is made by judging a person based on his intrinsic behavior and our own on external situations, opposite cases are also likely. For instance, when someone earns a promotion at work, we tend to attribute this success to external factors by adopting what is known as the ‘sour grapes’ attitude. We think it’s because he is favored by a particular manager, or because he’s just plain lucky. Here, we fail to attribute this success to his personal traits such as determination or hard work. In another example, a person with a low self-esteem or poor self-image may assume that he is unable to find a life partner because he doesn’t look good or because he isn’t funny. On the other hand, this may actually happen because he is not making the effort to go out and meet people, thereby limiting his chances of meeting someone.
It is important to learn how to avoid making the fundamental attribution error. Stopping to think for a moment and understanding the cause for a particular person’s behavior is something all of us ought to do in order to avoid making assumptions about someone. This will improve our observation powers and will help us empathize with others. By understanding the aforementioned examples, you will be able to dodge such situations and look at it from a third person’s perspective. Further, in your own case, there is nothing wrong with attributing some internal and external factors to your gain or loss in certain situations where it is deserved. Just don’t make either a habit.The “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias”, was observed 45 years ago in a social psychology research experiment by Ned Jones and Victor Harris, and has intrigued many social psychologists ever since. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “…in everyday life people seem all too willing to take each other at face value and all too reluctant to search for alternative explanations for each other’s behavior.” Gilbert proposes that this type of bias can be traced to four root causes. The following are ways we can — and probably do — go wrong in our understanding of people we judge as assholes:
- We lack full awareness of a person’s background and present situation. We usually have incomplete information about the experience and constraints other people face. For instance, we may learn that a person has been living in foster home since they were five years old and struggle to opening-up to strangers and come across as guarded and defensive in sharing personal information.
- We have unrealistic expectations of others. Even if we understand that person is stuck between a rock and a hard place, we might continue to formulate strong opinions about the person’s character. As a result, we hold unrealistic expectations. “Sure, he’s had a tough life so far,” you think, “but I never would let these miserable childhood experiences determine who I am going to be as a fully grown adult. When are they going to let go of it.”
- We make exaggerated assessments of person’s behavior. We may have perfect knowledge of past experiences and situational barriers or constraints, as well as realistic expectations, yet we may not perceive their behavior accurately. The result is an improper and off target assessment.
- We fail to correct initial assumptions and impressions of a person when new information is presented. Evidence shows that we are hard-wired to make quick judgments about people and situations, and lock-in to our views and only correct our errors as more data becomes available. However, when we have a lot on our plates, the mind becomes overloaded, we often fail to revise mistakes and continue to think of the person according to our first impression. So this person remains categorized in your mind as, well, an asshole.
None of this means that we should try to negate, or even suspend, our snap judgments. It is probably impossible to do so, and besides, our snap judgments can carry useful information. Sometimes they are right on the mark. Still, the FAE bias is so powerful it can steer us toward bad hires, loss of possible friendships as well as mindless stereotyping.
So how do we overcome this tendency to make snap judgments. The most effective way to approach our negative first impression of someone is to suspend judgment until you have more contact with the person and more data on who they are and how they behave over time; for example, when interviewing someone for a position in your department you may consider that a 30-60 minute interaction is not a enough time to really get to know someone so you plan a follow-up meeting or invite them to meet more people in the office. By getting more opinions and more time with the person you can gather more information to decide whether they are the right fit for a position. When we leave room for this possibility, we open the door to continue to gather more information in different settings and opportunity to discovery how they react, and gain an evolving understanding of this person so as to improve our assessments of them.
Listen to me people, you need to have this ability to build a strong network of friends and to correctly eliminate assholes from your life. People might think that this is a trait that someone is born with. I don’t believe that assumption. I’m leaning more towards the idea that some learn how to be open-minded earlier than others but I stand by the notion that this skill can be learned. It is not an easy attribute to acquire however, that’s why so many people don’t have it but trust me it is well worth the work. Just imagine the advantages of being open-minded and less judgmental.