In attribution theory, the fundamental attribution error (sometimes referred to as the actor-observer bias, correspondence bias or overattribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing 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 and environmental forces at work on that person. This default assumption leads to people sometimes making erroneous explanations for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is far less likely to occur when people evaluate their own behavior.

The term was coined by Lee Ross some years after the now-classic experiment by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris. Ross argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.

More recently some psychologists including Daniel Gilbert have begun using the term "correspondence bias" for the fundamental attribution error and the two terms are often used synonymously. Jones wrote that he found Ross' term "overly provocative and somewhat misleading" (and also joked "Furthermore, I'm angry that I didn't think of it first").

Classic demonstration study: Jones and Harris (1967)

Based on an earlier theory developed by Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis, Jones and Victor Harris hypothesized that when people saw others behave according to free will, they would attribute the behavior to disposition. When they could tell that behaved according to the circumstances of chance, however, observers would attribute the behavior to the situation.

Subjects listened to pro- and anti-Fidel Castro speeches. Subjects were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of both. When the subjects believed that the speech makers freely chose which position to take (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who gave the pro-Castro speeches as having a more positive attitude toward Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris' hyothesis, when the subjects were specifically told that the speech makers gave either a pro- or an anti-Castro speech solely as the result of a coin flip (random), the subjects still rated the people who gave the pro-Castro speeches as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those giving anti-Castro speeches. Thus, even when subjects were aware that the speeches made were solely because of the flip of a coin, they committed the fundamental attribution error when it came to judging the motivation behind pro or anti-Castro attitudes of the speech makers.

Everyday example

You are walking up to a cashier at the grocery store to check out when a man with two children cuts directly in front of you, arriving to pay the cashier before you. You are likely to grumble and think "What an incredible jerk!" Your default assumption is that the person is ill-mannered. You do not realize that the man did not even see you as his attention was largely focused on keeping his two children with him and moving to the cashier. Thus, your dispositional attribution for his behavior was, in this instance, incorrect. The man simply did not see you as his attention was focused on his children.

Why the fundamental attribution error occurs

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 acting upon that person that we may not be aware of. In the parlance of psychology research, this is called salience -- more "salient" factors are more likely to be attributed as causal.

How to 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 behavior.
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.

Related findings

  1. Persons in a state of cognitive load are more likely to commit the fundamental attribution error.
  2. 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.