The Fundamental Attribution Error: Why Predicting Behavior is so Hard

The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to a logical fallacy: our belief that the way people behave in one area carries consistently over to the way they behave in other situations.

We tend to assume that the way people behave is the result of their innate characteristics and overrate the influence of their personality. We underrate the influence of circumstances and how they can impact people’s behavior.

In this post, we’ll look at how the Fundamental Attribution Error works, how it misleads us, and how we can avoid this fallacy. We’ll draw upon the work of noted psychologists and experts in the field and consider what ‘character’ really means in this context.

Read on to learn more about one of the biggest reasoning errors you might be making.

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“Psychologists refer to the inappropriate use of dispositional
explanation as the fundamental attribution error, that is,
explaining situation-induced behavior as caused by
enduring character traits of the agent.”
— Jon Elster

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Think of a person you know well, perhaps a partner or close friend. How would you define their ‘character’? What traits would you say are fundamentally them? 

Now try imagining that person in different situations. How might they act if their flight to a conference was delayed by six hours? What would they do if they came home and found a sick stray animal on their doorstep? What would they do if they dropped their phone down a gutter?

You can probably imagine with ease how the person you have in mind would behave. We all do this; we make assertions about a person’s character, then we expect those things to carry over to every area of their lives. We label someone as ‘moral’ or ‘honest’ or ‘naive’ or any of countless labels. Then we expect that someone we label as ‘honest’ in one area will be honest in every area. Or that someone who is ‘naive’ about one thing is naive about everything.

Old-time folk psychology supports the notion that character is consistent. As social and political theorist Jon Elster writes in his wonderful book Explaining Social Behavior, folk wisdom suggests that predicting behavior is easy. Simply figure out someone’s character and you’ll know how to predict or explain everything about them: 

“People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption. “Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.” “Who lies also steals.” “Who steals an egg will steal an ox.” “Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.” “Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.” If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behavior should be easy.

A single action will reveal the underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behavior on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself. The procedure is not tautological, as it would be if we took cheating on an exam as evidence of dishonesty and then used the trait of dishonesty to explain the cheating. Instead, it amounts to using cheating on an exam as evidence for a trait (dishonesty) that will also cause the person to be unfaithful to a spouse. If one accepts the more extreme folk theory that all virtues go together, the cheating might also be used to predict cowardice in battle or excessive drinking.”

Believing that a single action can ‘speak volumes’ about someone’s character is a natural and tempting way to approach understanding others. If you’ve spent much time dating, you’ve probably received advice concerning small things that could be indications a prospective partner is not a great person, like how they speak to wait staff or even how they speak to their Alexa. Yet in reality, this advice doesn’t translate into reality. It’s impossible to know if someone will be a good partner based on a single action. 

The problem is, we’re often wrong when we think we know someone’s character and can use it to make predictions. Character, as a concept, is hard to pin down in any area.

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Appearances can be deceiving

In fact, our tendency to pick up on small details as indicators of someone’s character can backfire. We see someone seems good in one area and assume that carries across. Imagine you’re interviewing a financial advisor. He shows up on time. He’s wearing a nice suit. He buys you lunch. He’s polite and friendly. 

Will he handle your money correctly? You might think, based on the aforementioned factors, that he will. But in reality, his ability to manage his time or pick out a well-fitting suit has no relation to his money management skills. The shiny cuff links are not a sign of overall ‘good character.’

Appearances can be deceiving. The study of history shows us that behavior in one context does not always correlate to behavior in another. Our actions are as much the product of circumstances as of anything innate. 

Case in point: US President Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully and a liar. As a young man, he stole an election. But he also fought like hell to pass the Civil Rights Act, thereby outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, sex and other factors. Almost no other politician could have done that. Clearly, we cannot categorically say Johnson was a good or bad person. He had both positive and negative attributes depending on the context he was in. 

Another powerful and complex man was Henry Ford, of Ford Motors. We owe him a lot. He streamlined the modern automobile and made it affordable to the masses. He paid fairer wages to his employees and treated them better than was standard at the time. But Ford was also known for his antisemitism. 

Jon Elster goes on to give some examples from the music industry regarding impulsivity versus discipline:

“The jazz musician Charlie Parker was characterized by a doctor who knew him as “a man living from moment to moment. A man living for the pleasure principle, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality arrested at an infantile level.” Another great jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, had an even more extreme present-oriented attitude in his daily life, never saving any of his substantial earnings, but spending them on whims or on expensive cars, which he quickly proceeded to crash. In many ways he was the incarnation of the stereotype of “the Gypsy.” 

Yet you do not become a musician of the caliber of Parker and Reinhardt if you live in the moment in all respects. Proficiency takes years of utter dedication and concentration. In Reinhardt’s case, this was dramatically brought out when he damaged his left hand severely in a fire and retrained himself so that he could achieve more with two fingers than anyone else with four. If these two musicians had been impulsive and carefree across the board — if their “personality” had been consistently “infantile” — they could never have become such consummate artists.”

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Once you notice the fundamental attribution error, you can see it everywhere. Hiring is difficult because we cannot expect a person’s behavior in an interview to carry over to their behavior on the job. An autistic person, for instance, might struggle to explain themselves in an interview but be incredible at their work. Likewise, a parent may refuse to believe their child acts out at school because they are well behaved at home. A religious teacher may preach honesty while cheating on their spouse.  

Jon Elster describes a social psychology experiment that demonstrates how our sense of the right way to behave in one situation can evaporate in another:

“In another experiment, theology students were told to prepare themselves to give a brief talk in a nearby building. One-half were told to build the talk around the Good Samaritan parable(!), whereas the others were given a more neutral topic. One group was told to hurry since the people in the other building were waiting for them, whereas another was told that they had plenty of time. On their way to the other building, subjects came upon a man slumping in the doorway, apparently in distress. Among the students who were told they were late, only 10 percent offered assistance; in the other group, 63 percent did so. The group that had been told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan was not more likely to behave as one. Nor was the behavior of the students correlated with answers to a questionnaire intended to measure whether their interest in religion was due to the desire for personal salvation or to a desire to help others. The situational factor — being hurried or not — had much greater explanatory power than any dispositional factor.”

The people involved in the experiment no doubt wanted to be good samaritans and thought of themselves as good people. But the incentive of avoiding being late and facing the shame of people waiting for them overrode that. So much for character!

As Elster writes “Behavior is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.” We can’t disregard any notion of character, of course. Elster refers to specific tendencies that do not carry from situation to situation. General ones might. We need to understand character as the result of specific interactions between people and situations. We should pay attention to the interplay between the situation, incentives, and the person instead of ascribing broad character traits. The result is a much better understanding of human nature

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