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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

February 28, 2011

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The legal system often ascribes and apportions blame. Decisions are made about whether someone was at fault in an accident, or whether a defendant is guilty. We assume that the actor’s action was primarily the result of a quality of the actor and not merely the by-product of the circumstances in which the actor found himself. The law looks for “a” cause not “the” cause of an event. At other times, we are more willing to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior when extraordinary circumstances are present such as with the defenses of coercion, necessity, and self-defense.

One error in thinking is when we “explain other’s behavior as resulting predominately from their personality, while we often minimize (or even ignore) the importance of the particular situations in which they find themselves.”[i] This prevalent, but mistaken, tendency has been called “the fundamental attribution error.”[ii] For example, if we observe someone not contributing to a worthy charity, we think of them of stingy, but we don’t consider that may have recently just given money to another charity, and have bills to pay.

The fundamental attribution error is often reversed when someone explains their own behavior. People have the tendency to explain their own behavior in terms of the situation they had found themselves in, rather than in terms of their own dispositions.[iii] Why does the fundamental attribution error exist? Researchers have identified two sources for this error.

The first is the cognitive bias that we are attractive to those things that are the most perceptually salient and equate perceptually salient stimuli with casual stimuli.[iv] When we consider what another person has done, our attention focuses on the person and we have the tendency to ascribe the person’s behavior to qualities of the person. When we think of ourselves, the most salient stimuli are the situational factors we are facing, and then we ascribe causation of any of our behavior to these situational factors.

Another potential cause of the fundamental attribution error is the motivational biases that satisfy our “desire for self-esteem, power, or prestige.”[v] People in our culture believe that we are in control of our own destiny, and that makes us feel better. “After all, if we assume that other people have control over their outcomes, it reassures us that we, too, can control our outcomes.”[vi]

This tendency gives us the “illusion of control.” We want to believe that bad things happen because bad people do bad things, and good things happen because good people do good things. We don’t want to believe, that life, many times, isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. The understanding of this tension in our thought process is at least as old as the Book of Job.

Research into assigning blame for an accident involved aspects of the fundamental attribution error. A researcher had people ascribe blame to the owner of a car who parked his car on a hill. The brake did not hold the vehicle and the parked car rolled down a hill. The first situation had the car hitting a tree causing no damage to anyone. In the second situation, the vehicle struck another vehicle causing minimal damage. In the third situation, the vehicle struck a shop, injuring a shopkeeper and child.[vii]

Little blame was ascribed to the car owner when the vehicle caused no damage or slight damage. However, when the car caused harm to the shopkeeper and child, the people wanted the person punished.[viii] People feel better when someone can be blamed for behavior that results in harm. The punishment reinforces the idea that bad things do not happen randomly, but happen because people do bad things and not because good people are placed in bad situations that cause bad things. Anyone who has ever been involved in a sentencing for a negligent homicide has experienced examples of this human tendency.



[i] Levy, David A., Tools of Critical Thinking, Metathoughts for Psychology, 1997, Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press Inc. P. 84.

[ii] Roos, L. (1977), “The Intuitive Psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process.” Advances in expermimental social psychology (Vol. 10), New York: Academic Press.

[iii] Levy, David, 1997, p. 86.

[iv] Ibid. p. 86

[v] Ibid. p. 87

[vi] Ibid. p. 87

[vii] Walster, E. (1966) “Assignment of responsibility for an accident.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 73-79.

[viii] Ibid.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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