Fundamental Attribution Error

I do try quite hard to avoid jargon but I’ll make an exception for the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. Because it’s just so interesting.

I’ve been reading Crucial Confrontations. Based on oodles of research in field the authors explain how to confront promise-breakers without the ground swallowing us all up. I’m not a fan of how-to books in general but I thought this had a lot going for it.

It’s particularly good on the Fundamental Attribution Error – a basic flaw in human thinking that means we ascribe the behaviour of others to their personality rather than examining the context. Which generally causes grief in difficult conflicts.

Example: We think so-and-so is late for a meeting because he’s a lazy good-for-nothing who doesn’t respect me… rather than noticing it’s snowing outside. Well that’s a crude example but you get my drift.

As the authors point out, we’re good at blaming other people’s behaviour on their character, whilst excusing our own faults because of the difficult circumstances we work in.

I guess this partly explains our celebrity-obsessed culture. And the fascination of the business media with hero-CEOs, interestingly challenged by Jim Collins in Good to Great.

In Britain, consider the hoohah surrounding football managers. It fascinates me that a Manager is a great success with one team for a season or two, and gets lauded to the skies. Then he gets poached at great expense by a second team, where he’s a flop. That’s the Error at work; we think the success of a team is down to a genius manager and ignore all the complex context in which he operates.

Of course, this also works for organisations/brands. (As reflected in Cliff Allen’s comment on my recent post about Southwest, filling in the complex context that’s easily ignored.)

A lot of branding is an effort to exploit the Fundamental Attribution Error – to support the idea that if we just have faith in the brand, we don’t have to worry about all the detail.

And this cuts both ways. Watching the TV show Airline, either the UK or US version, is a pretty convincing lesson in how manipulative customers are. They ascribe their flight difficulties to the wicked airline banning them from flying rather than accept the context: for example, that they were late checking in because the roads were congested.

It’s interesting that Crucial Conversations has the usual list of celebrity endorsements on its back cover. So they don’t mind using the FAE in some cases either. And who can blame them.

Perhaps calling it an Error is a bit loaded. Evolutionists might argue that there’s a very good reason we think this way. Certainly, we do need mental shortcuts to navigate life.

Simple ideas then. But lightly held, please…

7 thoughts on “Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. Paul Goodison

    Johnnie – just been reading Ricardo Semler – Maverick. In that there are a number of times when the FAE emerges as a reason to maintain hierarchical command and control approach to business with in the organisation i.e. workers turn up late because they are lazy and therefore need to clock in and out, rather than trusting them. Could it be that social rather than biological forces at work here? If we had to take into account so much information to make simple decisions then we would end up with overload?

    Isn’t that the point of (traditional) branding i.e. to provide a shortcut to decision making for consumers of products? If we had to take into account such context wouldn’t it completely slow down all our decision making processes?

    I am not agreeing its correct to do this BTW rather suggesting that most people don’t actively think about context but rather respond almost instictively based upon previous experience and that this is what ‘branding’ exploits?

    P.S. Semler mentions people should not look to the past or the future but focus on the present, the now – not unlike some of the things you have been saying.

  2. fouroboros

    Isn’t FAE the result of us wanting to deny the obvious: Shit happens for reasons we often didn’t see coming, usually because our heads were down working on some “officially important” trifle Two choices, embodied in a phrase some wise person once sent me: When you come to the edge of all things that you know, you must believe one of two things: There will be earth on which to stand, or you wil be given wings to fly.

    *Knowing* in this instance is less about encycopaedic knowledge of facts but more understanding what people inherently want. Business policies and systems don’t take this fundamental man-hole into account, or rather, they create an even more dangerous one by implying that more “linear” rules are the answer. Customer and employee understanding begin at the beginnning, with people understanding. Which as we know, managers don’t learn in B-school. There’s your invisible 90% of the iceberg, Johnnie. But not unknowable.

    To follow on the earlier theme of LUV’s success, I give you JetBlue’s David Neeleman from October’s Chief Executive magazine: “When I get treated poorly, it really pisses me off. Then it pisses me off that it pisses me off.”

    See, Neeleman knows that if he can get his people to agree on the fundamental injustice of bad service, of “pissing people off,” then they can use that simple, yet firmly held idea, and act nimble in ways that make obvious sense to JetBlue’s mission, the same way Kelleher said, “If we’re not enjoying ourselves, what’s the point?”

  3. Fouroboros

    Chicken or Egg? Goal or Ambition…

    My new Skype pal and longer-term much-admired blogger, Johnnie Moore, has been pondering some good stuff. He began by wondering after Southwest Airlines’ success, then the meaning, matter and mirage of “goals”….

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments chaps. Paul you’re right about us needing short cuts. I’m gonna post a bit more this morning prompted by this.

    And fouro, you know I agree about the danger of rules and rigidity…

  5. 100bloggers

    Back Cover – Pull Quotes and Praise

    I’m in the process of laying out the back cover and would like to know if anyone has anything to add: If you’ve got something in your post that you’d like featured on the back of the book, feel free

  6. Johnnie Moore

    “As the authors point out, we’re good at blaming other people’s behaviour on their character, whilst excusing our own faults because of the difficult circumstances we work in.”

    This is actually more of a mix of the “Actor/Observer Bias”, in which we tend to contribute behavioral factors to the actions of others, while contributing situational factors to our own actions. This difference is that with the FAE there is a certain amount of estimation involved, whereas the A/O Bias suggests people don’t even consider the situational factors.

    The Self-Serving bias presumes that we contribute our successes to behavioral components, while contributing situational factors to our failures, and the opposite for other people.

    But these factors each play a role in the how we react to media persuasion, and I just felt compelled to leave a comment because I think it is an interesting perspective.


    Hi Interested (I hope we’re on first name terms): Thanks for that elaboration… it’s fascinating to note there’s a lot of unconscious biases affecting our judgent.

  7. herbalicious

    I would like to quote you in my blog. And more importantly, I would like to credit you in my blog. Would you please let me know how you would like to be credited? Such as, would you like me to use your name (first and last)? Or is a link to your blog good enough? I would like to respect your copy rights on this written material.


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