Peak Mind Pro: The Fundamental Attribution Error

Sep 20, 2023
fundamental attribution error

Our perception of the world is not objective. Rather, it is influenced by the way our brains process information. 

Think of it like algorithms that filter available content, distilling everything down to what's available in your news feed on whichever app you're into. Your feed and my feed don't necessarily look the same, even though we may be using the same platform with the same pool of available content. 

Similarly, our brains take in a ton of information every single second of the day, and they filter it, summarize it, and distill it down into useable bits. The natural algorithms - technically cognitive biases, heuristics, and beliefs -  dramatically impact how we perceive the world and how we react to it.


The Fundamental Attribution Error

There are a ton of cognitive biases, shortcuts, and scripts that our brains tend to follow. Today, we're calling your attention to one that can unknowingly show up and wreak havoc on interpersonal relationships: the fundamental attribution error. 

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) kicks in when it comes to understanding the whys of behavior, and it's biased in our favor. It tells us that our bad behavior is due to circumstances while others' bad behavior is due to their character (and the inverse as well - our good behavior is due to character while others' is due to circumstances). 

For example, the FAE makes us think that:

- If I mess up my calendar and miss a meeting, it's an honest mistake or a technology glitch. When my coworker does it, it's because they're disorganized or unprofessional. 

- When I cut someone off driving, it's because I didn't see them. The driver who cut me off is an inconsiderate menace.

- I got a promotion because I worked hard and deserve it. They got the promotion because they sucked up to the boss or filled a quota.

The problem? We misattribute causes of actions, treat our assumptions like facts, then operate based on them.

Just imagine how you're impacted in these situations. How are your views of others potentially skewed when we give character too much or too little credit? And when we minimize or maximize the role that environmental factors might play? 


Actionable Tips 

To counter the Fundamental Attribution Error, you must do two things:

1. Become aware of your automatic thoughts.

2. Challenge them.

Let's break these down.

Becoming aware of your automatic thoughts means learning to notice what goes through your mind as it is happening. Practices like keeping a thought record (taking the time to write down triggering situations and the thoughts that went through your mind at the time) and mindfulness can both increase your awareness.

Challenging your thoughts means questioning them. In this case specifically, you need to ask yourself a few key questions:

For bad behaviors:

1. What possible environmental or circumstantial factors am I overlooking? 

2. What's the kindest possible explanation for their behavior? 

For good behaviors:

1. Am I minimizing the role that their strengths or character might've played here? 

Remember, you can't believe everything you think. Learn to question it!


Strengthen your teams with powerful trainings from Peak Mind. Our live (virtual and in person) workshops and bitable digital trainings produce big shifts quickly. 

Featured Training: Our brand new workshop Change Your Mind, Change Your Life: A Guide to Helpful Thinking focuses on teaching your team how to:

  • Understand their mind's natural, built in biases and thinking errors and
  • Master the skill of thought challenging


What people say about Peak Mind:

"It is helping me realize that I am not alone with how my brain reacts, and I will be using the information to change my reactions in all areas of my life." Emerging Leader, Fortune 5 Company



Additional Resources

The Building Psychological Strength podcast and blog is your go-to resource for actionable information and practical tips for creating a joyful, effective, and resilient life experience, at and outside of work.  

For more information and inspiration related to cognitive biases and understanding others, check out these blog posts: 

The Importance of Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Beyond the Surface: Tapping into Empathy and Assuming Positive Intent

Is Your World View Distorted by Your Beliefs?

Why Do People Behave the Way They Do?


And these podcast episodes:

How to Become a Better Thinker

Tips for Thriving as an Empathetic Person

How to Successfully Navigate Your Toughest Conversations with Intention and Empathy


"The error lies in our inclination to attribute people's behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in."
- Chip Heath

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