Fundamental Attribution Error

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I do try quite hard to avoid jargon but I’ll make an exception for the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. Because it’s just so interesting.

I’ve been reading Crucial Confrontations. Based on oodles of research in field the authors explain how to confront promise-breakers without the ground swallowing us all up. I’m not a fan of how-to books in general but I thought this had a lot going for it.

It’s particularly good on the Fundamental Attribution Error – a basic flaw in human thinking that means we ascribe the behaviour of others to their personality rather than examining the context. Which generally causes grief in difficult conflicts.

Example: We think so-and-so is late for a meeting because he’s a lazy good-for-nothing who doesn’t respect me… rather than noticing it’s snowing outside. Well that’s a crude example but you get my drift.

As the authors point out, we’re good at blaming other people’s behaviour on their character, whilst excusing our own faults because of the difficult circumstances we work in.

I guess this partly explains our celebrity-obsessed culture. And the fascination of the business media with hero-CEOs, interestingly challenged by Jim Collins in Good to Great.

In Britain, consider the hoohah surrounding football managers. It fascinates me that a Manager is a great success with one team for a season or two, and gets lauded to the skies. Then he gets poached at great expense by a second team, where he’s a flop. That’s the Error at work; we think the success of a team is down to a genius manager and ignore all the complex context in which he operates.

Of course, this also works for organisations/brands. (As reflected in Cliff Allen’s comment on my recent post about Southwest, filling in the complex context that’s easily ignored.)

A lot of branding is an effort to exploit the Fundamental Attribution Error – to support the idea that if we just have faith in the brand, we don’t have to worry about all the detail.

And this cuts both ways. Watching the TV show Airline, either the UK or US version, is a pretty convincing lesson in how manipulative customers are. They ascribe their flight difficulties to the wicked airline banning them from flying rather than accept the context: for example, that they were late checking in because the roads were congested.

It’s interesting that Crucial Conversations has the usual list of celebrity endorsements on its back cover. So they don’t mind using the FAE in some cases either. And who can blame them.

Perhaps calling it an Error is a bit loaded. Evolutionists might argue that there’s a very good reason we think this way. Certainly, we do need mental shortcuts to navigate life.

Simple ideas then. But lightly held, please…

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