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The attribution error: why we love to blame other people

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The fundamental attribution error causes us to point the finger of blame and ignore situational factors

Did you ever wonder why you come across so many idiots when you’re out driving? Or, why your boss is so rude and inconsiderate? Here’s a secret: the problem might not be with the other people at all. It could be you’re making the fundamental attribution error.


The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias we all make from time to time. Also known as correspondence bias, or the attribution effect, it happens when we attribute behavior to someone’s core character,  rather than their situation. Professor Mark Sherman sums it up nicely:

‘For example, if someone cuts in front of you in line, your immediate reaction is, “This person is a complete jerk!” But in reality, maybe he never cuts into lines and is doing it this time only because he is about to miss his plane, the one he’s taking to be with his great aunt, who is on the verge of death.’

In short, it’s when we blame the person, instead of looking to their situation or circumstances.

We never blame ourselves

Although we’re quick to point the finger at others, we hardly ever make the fundamental attribution error on ourselves. We can always find a way to excuse our own shortcomings – the train was late, I’ve got a migraine, the dog ate my homework…. etc etc. But when it comes to judging others, it’s usually the person we see as defective, rather than looking at all the circumstances.

Examples of the fundamental attribution error

Here are some hypothetical real-world examples where you might easily make attribution errors.

Situation 1:

Grocery store checkout. Someone cuts in front of you in the grocery store checkout line.
How You See It: You assume they’re a rude and inconsiderate person.
What Might Be Going On:

  • They’re preoccupied because they’re dealing with their children
  • They feel extremely rushed because they’re late for an important meeting, and missing the meeting could lose them their job.
  • They thought you looked like you were waiting for someone instead of standing in line, so they went ahead. (This could happen if you weren’t standing close to the last person in line.)

Situation 2:

Your boss reprimands you. He’s making a big deal out of nothing
How You See It: He is a petty and cruel person.
What Might Be Going On:

  • Your boss is distressed because of a death in the family.
  • Your boss is worried that he or she won’t be able to make payroll.
  • Your boss was just diagnosed with cancer and is scrambling behind the scenes to find someone to train to do his job if he can no longer do it.

Situation 3:

The receptionist at your dentist’s office is talking on the phone while you wait to check in for your appointment.
How You Might See It: The receptionist is incompetent, lazy and unprofessional.
What Might Be Going On

    • The receptionist is talking to her daughter who is contemplating suicide.
    • The receptionist is talking to another patient, who is asking a lot of questions about his treatment and won’t get off the phone.
    • The receptionist’s car broke down on the way to work. She walked to the dentist’s office from the highway and is now trying to make arrangements for her car to be towed to the mechanic’s and fixed.

    How to avoid making the fundamental attribution error

    Although it is usually our first reaction, you can sometimes prevent this assumption. One of the best ways is to think in stories rather in judgments. Instead of seeing something you dislike and assuming the person who did it is a bad person, imagine the circumstances that might have led them to make that choice.

    Another thing you can do is to assume the best unless you have substantial evidence to think otherwise. This may be the strongest position to take, and it is certainly beneficial for our emotional health. We finish with some advice from Professor Mark Sherman again;

    “.. if we all take a step back to recognize and accept the fundamental attribution error, we will feel dissed far less often. Most people are good and decent, subject to the same difficulties in life as you are.”