Facilitator Journal | Issue #0182, December 7, 2004 | 7,000 Subscribers...
Many conflicts and misunderstandings that we experience everyday
as individuals and as group leaders have to do with a very common
error in judgment called Fundamental Attribution Error. In this
week's article, "An Error in Judgment,"
we explore the cause of this error and steps we can take to help
minimize it in ourselves and in our groups.
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An Error in Judgment
and educate your groups about Fundamental
When you witness
someone doing something that really pushes your buttons, to what do you
attribute the cause of their action? To the character of this person,
or to the nature of his/her individual personal situation? As it turns
out, most of us jump to conclusions about the person rather than the external
factors that might contribute to their behavior.
We see an apparently homeless person on the street requesting money from
passerbys and we are likely to think things like, "Why is this person
such a loser? Why don't they just get a job like the rest of us? They
must have no self-respect at all to be doing such a thing."
It's far less likely for us to ask questions like these, "What is
it about our society that gives rise to such things? What has happened
in this unfortunate person's life to have led to this necessity?"
This is a difference in attribution that is so dominant in us that sociologists
have given it a name. They call it...
Fundamental Attribution Error
This refers to the fact that whenever people are making attributions about
an action, they tend to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based
explanations for behaviors observed in others, and under-emphasize the
role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other
words, people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does
is based more on what "kind" of person he is, rather than the
social, biological, or environmental forces at work on that person. This
default assumption leads to people sometimes making erroneous explanations
does Fundamental Attribution Error Occur?
One theoretical view holds that the error results largely from perspective.
When we observe other people, the person
is the primary reference point. When we observe ourselves, we are more
aware of the forces acting upon us. So, attributions
for others’ behavior are more likely to focus on the person we see, not
the situational forces we can't see that are acting upon that person.
In the parlance of psychology research, this is called salience -- more
"salient" factors are more likely to be attributed as causal.
do we think we know?
You are a participant in a group and you make a statement about your political
stance. Just then you turn your gaze to a person across from you who at
the same time breaks eye contact with you and looks the other way. You
immediately think this person disagrees with your views and become angry
at them. You attack them saying something like," I wish more people
in this group were more open-minded." You don't know that this person
was simply distracted by someone moving outside and was simply looking
out the window. In this lucky instance, they just so happen to come up
to you during a break and to your surprise, complement you on the very
statement you made earlier and offer their agreement.
How can we reduce the error's effects?
A number of "debiasing" techniques have been found effective
in reducing the effect of the fundamental attribution error:
- Take heed to "consensus"
information. If most people behave the same way when put in the same
situation, then the situation is more likely to be the cause of the
- Ask yourself how
you would behave in the same situation.
- Look for unseen
causes. Since "salient" factors are usually overattributed,
look for factors you would not normally take notice of.
- Persons in a state
of cognitive overload are more likely to commit the fundamental attribution
- There is some evidence
to support the contention that cultures which tend to emphasize the
individual over the group ("individualistic" cultures) tend
to make more dispositional attributions than do the "collectivist"
cultures. Persons living in more individualistic societies may be more
likely to commit the fundamental attribution error.
Each of us might more
readily note this about ourselves: our character isn't stable.
It seems consistent because of our control over our environments. We will
do well to give others the benefit of any doubt about the supposed cause
of their behaviors.
will you do differently, or ask of your groups to minimize fundamental attribution
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