The Hazards of Fundamental Attribution Error

Note: We all play the game of people watching when we are in public parks, waiting for a flight in an airport, and anywhere there is a gathering of people. We also are all aspiring Sherlock Holmes types and like to make assumptions about these people and their lives. How often do we get to check out these assumptions and find out if they are accurate? Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at

This week's post will piggyback and is a companion to last week's post on Taming The Lizard Brain. Today we will explore the downside of making snap judgments and how that can play out through some case histories.

First things first - what is fundamental attribution error?
Another way of looking at this is that we tend to project stereotypes of behavior onto people that we observe, based on our own biases and within the social context of a given situation. In other words - when we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in. 'Nuff said on the definition, let's look at case histories where the disconnect between what we see and what is real can be dramatic.

How many of you have had this happen? In heavy traffic, someone cuts you off in a car, 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.

A classic example I hear quite often is the potential customer or client who doesn’t return your call. You could go the usual route and think, “She is an inconsiderate so and so." But and awareness of the fundamental attribution error would remind you that there might very well be other reasons why this person hasn’t called you back. Maybe she is going through major issues in her life. Maybe she is traveling for work. Maybe she honestly forgot!

A more esoteric case history; a man rushes his daughter to the ER after she has a violent seizure and becomes unconscious. She is diagnosed with a blood clot in her brain, that must be operated on quickly. Fortunately, this hospital has the only neurosurgeon in the area on its staff, but he is not onsite, nor is he on call. Still, the hospital calls him and he responds that he will be in as soon as possible. The father's response to this news immediately goes to anger at the doctor and he starts to create scenarios where the doctor is out playing golf with his buddies while his daughter lays dying in the emergency room. When the doctor does show up, the father starts to unload on him all of his fears and frustrations, centered around the tardiness of the doctor. The doctor apologizes and says that he was delayed because he was at his son's funeral. He was killed in a car accident just days before and the funeral was that morning.

Another true story........a crowded NYC subway train. There are two children who are out of control, running up and down the car, bumping into other passengers while screaming at the the top of their lungs. The father of the two out of control children feebly tries to get them to sit down and be quiet, but to no avail. (I can almost see the cartoon bubbles above the other passenger's heads, "What a bad parent.") Finally an exasperated passenger near the father yells out, "Please control your damn kids." It gets quiet for a minute (even the two kids), and the man says, "I am very sorry. We just came from the hospital where their mother lies terminally ill and we learned that there is no hope for her. I simply do not have the energy to calm my children right now."

I admit that those 2 situations are extreme, so let's finish the case histories with something more commonplace. The airline customer service agent at the service counter is really grumpy and short with you. The Fundamental Attribution Error says that most of us will tend to attribute her grumpiness to her personality (internal cause) -- "she`s just a grumpy person". In fact her behavior could have been caused by the fact that her boss is making her work through lunch so she`s really hungry and unhappy that she has to miss the birthday lunch her friends are having for her -- an external situation that would make most people unhappy regardless of their personality.

Let's rewind to last week's post about the more base responses that are generated from the Lizard Brain in all of us. Do you see that making snap judgments about others really was wired into us millennia ago and that we can still be held hostage by it? The answer? Take a breath and don't react too quickly to what appears in front of us as being the only truth. Let the Human Brain section (the Neocortex) of our noodle in all of us assess, calculate, and then make a measured response to the current situation. That is, unless the building's on fire, and then it is time to let "Lizard Brain" take over and get the hell out of there!

Last example.........overcoming fundamental attribution error by using the Human Brain. This one's about me! I was late for a meeting and I had asked my Administrative Assistant, Kim, to bring the handouts to a meeting (we were coming from separate locations). At first, when I arrived and there were no handouts, my Lizard Brain went right into overtime and I started thinking the worst about Kim. Taking a breath and engaging my Human Brain, I asked, "Kim, I was hoping that you would bring the handouts to the meeting.  What happened?”  This stated what I had expected, and then allowed Kim to speak to the situation without my condemning her.  If the problem was intentional, then it would need to be made right, and future intentions would need to be better clarified.  If it was a legitimate accident, or non-intentional, then I was giving her grace and we could move on.

Many thanks to my advance readers, Mike Ware, Tom Scharf, and Deb Westcott for your insights and suggestions.

Next Week:
Honest Communication