What you don’t know can lead to assumptions, erroneous conclusions, and potentially poor decisions. Our brain is constantly trying to make sense of behaviors we observe and in the absence of data, we sometimes rely on cognitive distortions to fill in the gaps and reduce ambiguity.
Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the tendency to judge your own actions on your current situation or state, while attributing others‘ behaviors to their character or personality (to the exclusion of circumstances). For example:
- You’re rushing to the ER after learning your teenager had an accident. On the way to the hospital, you cut off two cars to make your exit. You consider yourself a safe driver, and justify this behavior since it’s an emergency (situations factor).
- A few days later, you’re driving home from a social event when you witness the car a few lanes over cut off two other drivers and narrowly make the exit. You think, “That guy is an entitled jerk.” (character trait)
Isn’t it feasible the aggressive driver you witnessed also had an emergency? We may never know, but it doesn’t stop us from falling into the trap of FAE and failing to consider his situation when making sense of behaviors.
This matters – in the office, at home, in politics, and in everyday life. FAE is why we judge others’ harshly (“She’d land a job if she wasn’t so lazy.” – character trait), while letting ourselves off the hook for similar behavior (“My field is competitive, so finding a job takes longer.” – situational factor). It’s also how we convince ourselves we are safe when bad things happen to others (“If he was competent, he wouldn’t have gotten laid off.”) when in fact, we are susceptible to similar fates.
FAE is often the basis for misunderstandings and raising awareness allows you to pause and check your assumptions before jumping to an inaccurate conclusion. We almost never have all the facts in a given scenario, so while your brain is pressuring you to make a snap judgment (“Jane bombed the presentation because isn’t qualified to do this job.” – character trait), the wiser choice is to seek understanding (“Sorry, Jane – I didn’t realize you had a fender bender on the way to the client.” – situational factor), rather than having to backtrack and apologize later.
Be an example to others and dig a little deeper. The world needs less judgment and more understanding.