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Fundamental Attribution Error: Why it matters in business?

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Suppose it is John’s first day at the office and there is an important meeting that you have to attend. He catches his regular train to the office, but he got pushed by a fellow passenger while getting down. Unfortunately, he twisted his ankle and suffered an injury. Despite the injury, he reached the office 15 minutes late for the meeting, as he wanted to give his best to his new job. 

After he arrives, a key team leader in the meeting responsible for allocating jobs says to the other team member, “ John is late and not punctual. I am not sure if we can trust him with important work and meeting deadlines.” “It must be a habit to be late.” Now, even though you are always very punctual and reached office despite a severe sprain, you did not get any work on the new project, as the team leader blaming an incident of being late to your habit to the character.   So what just happened here? It is a fundamental attribution error. The employers thought that John was disorganized and not a punctual person; however, the real reason behind him being late was the fact that he had sprained his ankle. Something he had no control over nor could have foreseen.  

Index:

What is the fundamental attribution error?

The fundamental attribution error refers to the situation where a person incorrectly attributes a person’s action. The error is a result of how we perceive the world and everyone else. The error happens as we have a tendency to attribute a person’s action to their personality or character and their behavior to external factors or situations beyond their control. We rarely have to know what is going on in somebody else’s life, but we are quick to make an assumption.

Simply put, the fundamental attribution error highlights that when trying to explain other people’s behavior, we have a tendency to overemphasize their personality (dispositional factors) and undermine the situation they were in (situational factor). We believe that a person’s personality traits significantly impact their actions compared to other factors beyond their control.

fundamental attribution error
fundamental attribution error

Why does the fundamental attribution error happen?

In order to understand the fundamental attribution error, it is crucial to understand attribution and its types. Simply put, attribution refers to how we explain another person’s behavior. Attribution is of two types. The fundamental attribution error occurs when we mix the reason behind an individual’s actions with incorrect attribution. Let us look at these two types.

  • Dispositional Attribution (internal): 

Dispositional attribution is when a person’s actions are attributed to something fundamental to their character or personality.

  • Situational Attribution (external): 

Situational attribution is when a person’s actions are attributed to certain external factors like their circumstances, environment, or surroundings.

People’s behavior is often a result of the situation they find themselves in. But only a few people understand and apply it since we are not always aware of what the other person is going through. As a result, we fail to account for the situation. Therefore, when we don’t have relevant information, we cannot make reasonable judgments. So why do people commit these attribution errors when they know situational factors might have a role to play?

  • It takes up mental resources:

 In some cases, the error occurs because it takes time and effort to change our perception of a person’s actions and behavior in line with the situation they are in. With our limited cognitive resources, our brain tends to take a path that requires the least effort or energy. This further leads to cognitive shortcuts and makes us a victim of series of biases.

  • The error is affected by our mood: 

Research has suggested that humans are prone to commit attribution errors when in a good mood. The reason being, bad mood makes us more vigilant and systematic in processing information, actions, and situations.

We are likely to pay more attention to details and retain more information in a bad mood. To sum up, a good mood makes us careless in processing information, and the environment making us prone to shortcuts.

  • Ignoring the situation on purpose: 

Sometimes, when we are low on cognitive resources, we tend to skip the phase to process the situation and commit the attribution error. But there are times, even when we choose to neglect the situation anyway. This happens because we assume that behavior is indicative of a specific personality trait.

Example of a fundamental attribution error:

Let us say, a person drives rashly on the road and skips a signal. You may think that it is a part of their personality and they are not nice, however, in reality, that person might be rushing to the hospital with a patient. The error occurred because we wrongfully attributed the action of the person.

What are its effects? How does it impact business?

As humans, we tend to make an effort to understand why people act the way they do. But, unfortunately, in doing so, we often make judgments about them based on their behavior. Therefore fundamental attribution error may negatively affect us and our business. Let us understand how:

  • Bad workplace environment: 

The error leads us to make erroneous judgments about people and their behavior, leading to a negative or hostile work environment. Such an environment is not suitable for doing productive work. Therefore we must avoid making such errors as it may lead to bad reactions between colleagues and reduce productivity.

  • Wrong recruitment decisions: 

Remember John, who was not given any work by his employer as he was late? There can be instances when the right candidate might be late for an interview or have a personality trait that may make them seem irresponsible. But that same candidate might be well qualified and most suitable for the job.

However, due to attribution error, you might make a mistake and not hire them. Therefore functional attribution error may lead to wrong recruitment. 

  • Wrong decisions: 

Since the functional attribution error leads us to take mental shortcuts, we are prone to fall victim to numerous biases. Moreover, with a person prone to making a biased decision in power or in a managerial capacity, there is a higher possibility of biased and wrong decisions being made. Further such biases and errors may stop us from addressing issues in the workplace.

How can we avoid it?

  • Acknowledgment:  

The most important way to avoid these errors is by acknowledging them. Understand that we are prone to such errors; this way, we can address them.

  • Understand: 

When someone is late, consider the circumstance before reprimanding them. Sometimes it might be challenging to understand the other person’s situation, but by simply trying to understand, we can save ourselves from overreacting and rationalize the situation. 

  • Do not focus on action; instead, put yourself in the other person’s shoes: 

Sometimes, due to our erroneous judgment, we might be annoyed because of a person’s actions and say unpleasant things or make unfortunate decisions. This can be counter-productive, therefore focus on what could have lead to such an action and how you would have reacted to the same situation.

  • Focus on positives: 

Humans have good traits and bad ones. And if we find ourselves in a fix because of a particular action, try to remind ourselves of their good qualities and that one incident doesn’t represent them.

A final word:

How often have you thought of firing a customer service representative or co-worker for being incompetent? Now, how often have you tried to understand the reason or situation that could have led to their actions? The fundamental attribution error is rooted in our psychology, and addressing it can be difficult.

However, try to balance your reactions by rationalizing the situation rather than running to a conclusion. Stop overemphasizing a person’s traits and underemphasizing the situation.

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Related Articles:

What is Fundamental Attribution Error?

The fundamental attribution error refers to the situation where a person incorrectly attributes a person’s action. The error is a result of how we perceive the world and everyone else.

Whats the Fundamental Attribution Error?

Let us say, a person drives rashly on the road and skips a signal. You may think that it is a part of their personality and they are not nice, however, in reality, that person might be rushing to the hospital with a patient. The error occurred because we wrongfully attributed the action of the person.

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