Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error

The old lady ahead of you falls. You think she’s too weak to get around without a walker until you trip over the same bad spot in the sidewalk.

You watch Jeopardy and try to come up with the questions for Alex Trebek’s answers. Alex Trebek seems to be smarter than you.

Your wife hasn’t responded to your texts all night. You lose trust in her. When she comes home, you find out that her phone had fallen in the toilet.

Your father never played catch with you when you were a kid because he was never around. You thought he just didn’t care. Years later you find out that he was working overtime to send you to college.

These are all examples of what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. The mistake people make when they believe the cause of people’s actions to be some internal characteristic or motivation, rather than an external factor. It’s easy to assume an old lady would have trouble walking, but it’s hard to see the rise in the sidewalk. Alex Trebec looks smart, but he was provided the answers. You had no way of knowing your wife dropped her phone in the toilet. When you were a kid, your feelings of disappointment seemed a lot more important than anything to do with college.

It’s easy to make the Fundamental Attribution Error when you’re observing other people. There’s stuff that affect the outcome you wouldn’t know anything about. But you make the same mistake when you observe and judge yourself. Some things about yourself are more noticeable to you than other things.

Here’s a riddle. What imaginary thing is always on your mind and is the principle actor in every scene you are in?

Let me give you a hint. Of all the factors that affect the choices you make, it’s the thing that’s the most noticeable and often gets the blame.

It’s not your childhood. Your childhood laid the foundations. It’s quite influential, but it’s seldom on your mind. It’s not your brain chemistry, your genetics, or your DNA; nor is it socioeconomic circumstances, the global weather, or the price of tea in China. It’s not your boss, your spouse, your siblings, or, heaven forbid, your mother. They are all influential, but not in every scene.

The imaginary thing that is always on your mind and is the principle actor in every scene you are in is your Self. Yes, your Self.

I’m not saying that you are an imaginary creature. You’re very real; but your Self is a fiction. Your Self is a construct, a collection of generalizations that we call characteristics, general tendencies that we call personality, an image or a mask that you call you. But your Self is not you, it’s an actor you cast and direct to play you. It’s the thing you hold responsible for every thing you do; not because your Self did it, but because it was there.

There you go again. You’ve done it to yourself. You’ve committed the Fundamental Attribution Error.