The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias – a built-in error in thinking that we all humans have in common – that describes how we tend to attribute other people’s actions to their personal characteristics while failing to take into account situational reasons. This bias occurs in many different types of situations, such as when we observe someone behaving agressively or immorally.
The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to overemphasize the influence of a person’s personal, intrinsic qualities while underemphasizing the importance of situational factors.
For example, if we see someone driving recklessly on the road, we are likely to judge their behavior due to a perceived flaw in their character (“what a moron!”) instead of considering any external reasons that might have been the main cause for their actions (for instance, a medical emergency).
Interestingly, we blame other people for their misbehavior, but the converse is often true when we have to explain and evaluate our own doings: we tend to blame the situation we are in or other people around us for our shortcomings (see also the self-serving bias).
In one well-known study (1967) on the fundamental attribution error, the subjects were asked to read texts that were either for or against Fidel Castro. They were informed that the viewpoints of the texts were predetermined; there was no evidence that they reflect the actual position of the writer. The results showed that, on average, the subjects still believed that the contents of the texts were in accordance with the actual opinions of the authors.