Fundamental Attribution Error

Hi! This is Chris Dyer, and I thought it’d be interesting if we talked about cognitive biases and the Fundamental Attribution Error. Now, I tend to spend a lot of time inside of culture, remote work, employee engagement, leadership, but what I’ve found all of these things have in common is that as human beings, we continue to be tripped up by really simple things, and it tends to be these biases that whether they come preprogrammed into your brain or they’re something we all learn from those around us or as we grow up, well, maybe science can tell us that part, but what I do know is that I see them everyday and I see them interfering with people and their work and their ability to lead. And typically, I find is that inside of organizations that I go in and work with, they are often sort of untapped. They’re sort of not ever been dealt with, right? And so all of these little things that are happening inside of our organization are kind of being fed into everyone’s biases and it gets worse and it gets worse.

So there are about 50 that we could talk about inside of workplaces, and then what I’m going to do is hopefully, over some bit of time here, get to all 50 and talk about them. And the first one we’re going to talk about is the Fundamental Attribution Error. So, what the heck does that mean? Well, let’s just give you an example.

Let’s just say you go out somewhere. Maybe you go to a bar, maybe you go to a store, maybe you’re at the gas station and you meet a stranger, okay? This is really important that it’s a stranger. It’s not someone that you know. It’s not your parents, it’s not your kids. It’s not a neighbor, not someone you know well, but you run into a stranger and they’re a jerk, right? You have this interaction with them that’s negative. So there are 2 reasons for this. There are 2 kind of explanations we can give.

The first is there’s an internal issue here. So, internal means like this is something wrong with them. It’s their personality, it has something to do with their beliefs, they’re just a rude person. They weren’t raised right. It’s about them.

The second reason that they might’ve been a jerk is external, right? Maybe their car just broke down. Maybe their boyfriend or girlfriend just broke up with them. Maybe there’s an outside reason. They just lost all of their money, right? The wind blew away their winning lottery ticket. Whatever, there might be some external reason why they were just a jerk to you.

We understand biases, but as human beings, we tend to blame the internal. We blame the person. If we don’t think about it, we immediately say, “They must be a jerk. They have been raised poorly. They’re a terrible human being. It must be them.” And yet, when we think about our own situations where maybe we weren’t as nice as we could’ve been, we immediately give excuses that are external. I had a bad day, you know, my spouse was mean to me, my boss was a jerk to me this morning. We had some external reasons, but whenever we sort of recognize it in another person, we immediately form a bias: Blame that internal reason. We blame that person. So there’s a lot of theories as to why this is. One of them is that it’s just easier to see, right? We can see that person being a jerk, therefore we blame that person, and we have no idea the things that went on in their life that day or leading up to that moment and we can’t possibly then sort of grasp that or think about that.

So, what can we do to counter this in our organization? The first thing we need to do is to try to catch ourselves and make sure that we don’t blame the internal or the external. If we can slow down and ask someone, even if they are a stranger, “Hey, are you okay? What’s going on?” Now, it’s certainly possible that you are meeting someone who really is a jerk, right? There really is a problem. But if we ask someone what’s going on, we may find out that there’s more going on here than just they’re a bad person, they’re a jerk, they’re just bad, it’s internal. You may find out that there’s a real struggle, there’s a real issue going on.

When people are often talking about having empathy for others, don’t judge others, I think it’s hard for us to grasp what that means. I mean, we’re all running around judging everyone all the time. I mean, that’s just sort of our brains on autopilot and we’re making little assumptions and judgements about things and people all day long because our brain is trying to shortcut a lot of the work it has to do. But when we have this occurrence, if we can stop and talk to somebody and figure out if it is internal or external, then we can have a much better interaction and maybe find an opportunity to really connect with somebody, help them through an issue, and get to a place where they’re not being a jerk.