The Fundamental Attribution Error

by | May 28, 2019


The Fundamental Attribution Error explains a lot about how we view ourselves and others. There are two parts to it:

  1. We view other’s actions as a reflection on their personality or who they are as people. Thus, if someone wrongs us, we view them as bad, mean, selfish, misguided, etc.
  2. We view our own actions based on the circumstances of our situation. If we do something wrong to others we are quick to justify it based on the situation – not who we are as people.


For example, if someone lies to us, we may think of the person as “a liar.” However, when we ourselves lie we think about our situation – that we lied to protect feelings of another, for example – and we do not view ourselves as being “a liar.”

Another example, “if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so.  We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character. “

Another example, “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.”

What to do about it

In reading about Fundamental Attribution Error the best solution offered seems to be to realize that we are all fellow travelers through life and we all are doing the best we can. We all have challenges, problems and suffer. Thus, when somebody acts poorly, step back and remember that they are a fellow traveler, a fellow sufferer, and are probably doing the best they can. It’s likely the burden of their situation rather than some personality defect that caused them to act the way they did. Cut them some slack. Shake it off.


  1. I don’t think this explanation of my occasional unacceptable behaviors will be convincing to my wife. Please come up with more options. Lov2Nap

  2. I have recognized this in myself and in recent years have very consciously tried to step back and remember to ascribe the best possible motivations to the other person. You are no less right than assuming the worst motivations, and I find it reduces my stress.


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