Why Is the Fundamental Attribution Error So Confusing?

Probably because it is a weird concept that does not even match reality.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

Due to considerations of length, I have split this article into two parts. This is part 1; part 2 is here.

Social psychologists have developed names for a host of biases in the ways people perceive behavior. The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is not only one of the most famous of these biases, but apparently, one of the most frequently misunderstood. Many laypeople confuse the FAE with distinctly different phenomena, such as the self-serving attribution bias.

Such confusion is not limited to laypeople, however. A recent article by a sociologist making a misguided attempt to apply a sociological/social psychological analysis to the popular TV show Game of Thrones illustrates the same confusion, and perhaps illustrates a deeper confusion among those who would attempt to deny the importance of human individuality in the name of social science.

I have previously written about the FAE in a pair of articles, arguing that, despite the importance  claimed for it, it is highly overrated. Even though well-known, manypeople seem to be confused about what this phenomenon is supposed to be, perhaps because it is a counter-intuitive concept.

Hence, I will start with some definitions and distinctions. The FAE was defined by psychologist Lee Ross as a tendency for people, when attributing the causes of behavior "to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behaviour" (Reeder, 1982).

In plainer language, this means that even when someone has very little choice in how they behave because of external environmental demands (i.e., situational factors controlled their behavior), other people tend to assume that they behaved the way they did because of their own attributes, such as their personality, attitudes, and desires (i.e., dispositional factors).

This phenomenon, which is supposed to be a ubiquitous and pervasive error, is said to occur because laypeople believe that “situational factors have little impact on human behaviour” (Gawronski, 2004). That is, people supposedly underestimate the “power of the situation” because they are “intuitive dispositionalists” who mistakenly think that people act consistently with their personalities. Got all that?

Now, some readers may object that what I have described is not what the FAE means and that I don’t know what I am talking about. (Oh, ye of little faith!) Instead, they might think that the FAE is something like the following:

We also have a bias for the individual as the locus of agency in interpreting our own everyday life and the behavior of others. We tend to seek internal, psychological explanations for the behavior of those around us while making situational excuses for our own. This is such a common way of looking at the world that social psychologists have a word for it: the fundamental attribution error.

When someone wrongs us, we tend to think they are evil, misguided or selfish: a personalized explanation. But when we misbehave, we are better at recognizing the external pressures on us that shape our actions: a situational understanding. If you snap at a coworker, for example, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you had difficulty sleeping last night and had financial struggles this month. You’re not evil, just stressed! The coworker who snaps at you, however, is more likely to be interpreted as a jerk, without going through the same kind of rationalization. This is convenient for our peace of mind, and fits with our domain of knowledge, too. We know what pressures us, but not necessarily others.

This is a quote from an article by sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci, with the modest and unassuming title, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.” This explanation of the supposed FAE is inaccurate, and is part of an agenda to interpret this TV show through a situationist-cum-sociological lens to promote her own theories.

What Tufekci describes is not the FAE at all, but what social psychologists call the actor-observer asymmetry (AKA actor-observer bias). There are two main accounts of this latter phenomenon.

In the strong or general account, people routinely explain their own behavior in situational terms and other people’s behavior in dispositional terms, regardless of whether the behavior is good or bad.

Social psychologists have claimed that the general version of the actor-observer asymmetry is a robust and pervasive effect. This is supposed to occur because people have different perspectives depending on whether they are actors (i.e. doing something) or observing another’s behavior. That is, when performing an action, people are supposed to be more aware of how their environment affects their behavior, whereas when observing an action, they focus more on the person doing the action than their environment (Malle, 2006).

However, there is another, more limited version of this phenomenon, in which how people judge their own vs. another’s behavior depends on whether the outcome was favorable or unfavorable. Specifically, actors attribute their failures to environmental, situational factors, and their successes  to their own personal characteristics. However, when observing others, they either do not show this bias or show the opposite effect: attribute others' successes to the environment (e.g., luck) and failures to their personal characteristics. This phenomenon is also called the self-serving bias in attribution (self-serving bias for short).

Wikimedia Commons
Situations, dispositions: which face is more important?
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the FAE and these two versions of the actor-observer asymmetry might seem similar, there are nevertheless important conceptual differences between them. First, advocates of the theory of situationism, like Ross and Richard Nisbett, claim that the FAE occurs because people believe that situational factors have little impact on human behavior, i.e., that people simply do not understand the “power of the situation” because they prefer dispositional explanations.

Furthermore, this is supposed to be an error because situational factors are the central causes of behavior while dispositions or personality traits are unimportant.

Yet, the actor-observer asymmetry suggests that people do accept that situational factors influence their behavior, at least when considering their own actions in the general account, or when it suits them in the self-serving account.

Furthermore, if the self-serving account is correct, invoking situational causes does not necessarily mean that one has grasped the true causes of behavior, but that one is interpreting things in whatever way allows one to feel better about oneself. Hence, there seems to be a contradiction between what these alleged phenomena imply. Therefore, it may be helpful to consider the current evidence for each of them.

First, let’s dispose of the FAE. I have criticized this at length elsewhere (here and here), so I will deal with it briefly by summarizing the conclusion of a review (Gawronski, 2004) that I did not cover  previously. According to this review, although there is evidence that people do draw dispositional inferences from situationally constrained behavior (which the author refers to as correspondence bias), there is no evidence that laypeople have causal theories in which “situational factors have little impact on human behavior.”

Hence, the author proclaimed that “the fundamental attribution error is dead.” Instead, the author argues that it is not that people underestimate the importance of situational causes in general, but that they sometimes misunderstand which specific situational factors may be acting on a person.

What about the actor-observer asymmetry? Regarding the general version of this phenomenon, the author (Malle, 2006) of a review of more than 170 studies spanning 35 years found that the mean effect size was indistinguishable from zero and concluded that “The actor-observer hypothesis appears to be a widely held yet false belief.” Additionally, he noted that “actors and observers do not notably differ in their person and situation explanations” of behavior.

On the other hand, the self-serving bias fared better, as there was evidence that this effect replicated across studies. Specifically, the expected actor-observer asymmetry occurred for negative events (i.e., people explained own failures situationally and another’s failure dispositionally), whereas the reverse occurred for positive events (i.e., people explained own successes dispositionally and another’s success situationally).

Hence, the actor-observer asymmetry is not a general phenomenon, but does occur under certain circumstances, depending on the evaluation of what is being explained. 

Why the confusion?

Why do so many people confuse the FAE with the actor-observer asymmetry? I’m not altogether sure, but I suspect it might be because the FAE is a counter-intuitive, even weird idea that does not match everyday experience, while the self-serving version of the actor-observer asymmetry is easier to relate to.

Specifically, even though some social psychologists claim that most people are “intuitive dispositionalists” who mistakenly believe that “situational factors have little impact on human behaviour,” there is a lack of evidence that this is even true; on the contrary, there is evidence that most people accept an interactionist view, in which both situations and personality traits influence behavior (Newman & Bakina, 2009).

By the way, the interactionist view was endorsed by the eminent psychologists Kurt Lewin in 1938, and also happens to be in line with the empirical evidence. Furthermore, the idea that people are biased to be self-serving and believe whatever happens to make them feel better is more intuitive and easier to understand as it matches people’s common experience.

One noted critic of the FAE (Funder, 2001) argued that the really, really fundamental attribution error is committed by psychologists, and not by the laypeople they study: believing that the causes of behavior are simple and easily dichotomized. More specifically, proponents of situationism have tried to advance the FAE as a phenomenon that illustrates their dichotomous theories that behavior is really controlled by external situational factors rather than internal dispositional ones. Tufekci’s article applies a similar dichotomous theory to pop culture in her Game of Thrones article, in which she attempts to apply a situational vs. dispositional analysis first to the TV show and then to society at large. This irked me, because it seemed to reflect an attempt to deny the importance of individuality in society, which has long been a theme of situationist discourse in social psychology. I explore my criticisms of her approach in Part 2 of this article.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.

References

Funder, D. C. (2001). The Really, Really Fundamental Attribution Error. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 21–23. 

Gawronski, B. (2004). Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 183–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463280440000026

Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 895–919. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895

Newman, L. S., & Bakina, D. A. (2009). Do people resist social‐psychological perspectives on wrongdoing? Reactions to dispositional, situational, and interactionist explanations. Social Influence, 4(4), 256–273. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510802674292

Reeder, G. D. (1982). Let’s give the fundamental attribution error another chance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 341–344. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.43.2.341

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