Fundamental Attribution Error – Basic Explanation With Some Examples

In a simple way, the fundamental attribution error happens when people observe and then judge the negative actions of others. In doing so, the observer often underestimates the social pressures that cause the other person to act in such a way.

A good and simple example of the fundamental attribution error can happen like this:

On a specific day a waitress is talking rudely to her customers. The customers now think that she is a really bad person. What the customers don’t realize is that usually most people find the waitress friendly but today the waitress is experiencing one of the hardest days in her life. Her husband just left her for another woman, and she just lost her son in a car wreck. If the customers were aware of the problems the waitress just had, they actually wouldn’t mind her negative attitude as much considering her current state.

So the error was the customers assuming the waitress is a much worse person than she really is. Or that she is always a rude waitress.

Another example deals with young people getting in to bad habits such as smoking. It is often easy to underestimate the pressure young people go through just so they can be accepted among their peers. I have seen adults call young teens stupid for smoking at 15. The fundamental attribution error in here is this: These teens are not stupid, many of them are actually quite smart and get good grades in school. The reason they picked up smoking at such a young age was simply to be accepted by their peers who also smoke. This does not mean smoking is good for them, it just means there is an error of perception when an outsider judges the teen’s actions. The outsider does this without taking in to account the pressures that are causing the teen to act this way.

I often thought that money and power makes people more arrogant, selfish, and prideful above others. I thought it was part of their character. I often forget to think about the pressures that society places on these people to be perfect. This pressure and demand influence the behavior of these people that I perceive negative therefore thinking it is a part of their character. I also thought that the more money people start making the harder it is to give a certain percent away. After all, it is harder to give away $50,000 instead of $500. From a percentage point of view the two amounts are the same if the guy giving the bigger amount makes a hundred times more. I am sure for most people it is still harder to give away the bigger amount regardless of their income. You could do a lot more with $50,000. Therefore I always thought the more money people make the more greedy they can get. But with the fundamental attribution error, this way of thinking is wrong.

The fundamental attribution error makes a good point when we look at the bigger picture. I began to see the social pressure that today’s culture places on a millionaire or a powerful leader. The idea is if you have tons of money and/or powerful, you are smarter and therefore have less weaknesses, closer to perfection. A guy who makes $30 million a year is a human being with strengths and weaknesses. Most people who make that much money realize people look up to them. Therefore they cannot show any weakness whatsoever. This can alter their actions to show pride and ignore certain class of people. They will try to hide any weakness they have because they probably get the idea that is what society demands from them. The reality is, many millionaires and powerful political leaders have financial or leadership success, but they have so many flaws in other areas of their lives. This means they all have problems and weaknesses like everyone else. The only difference is these leaders have a pressure to be perfect because of their position.

Here is another example of the fundamental attribution error personally in my life.

In my first two years of college there was a student, he had long hair, he was wearing a black trench coat all the time and would never take off his sunglasses even indoors. Very few people would socialize with him. Even though I first saw him as weird, I thought the people in the class were jerks for not socializing with him. I gave him rides home because he didn’t have a car. We kind of became school buddies and after I got to know him, in my opinion he was the coolest guy in the class. When looking at the Fundamental Attribution I don’t think the other people in the class were jerks. I see that social influence pressured them not to associate with people who didn’t look like them, who were not part of their “norm”. It wasn’t cool for them to associate with someone who looked like they just walked of a Jerry Springer show.

Things are not what they seem, and the fundamental attribution error points that out in a very scientific way if you do more research on it.