I am referring to The Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution Error is one of the most popular and often cited cognitive errors in psychology. The term was coined by the psychologist Lee Ross.

“It describes our failure to recognize situational causes of events and our tendency instead to over attribute individuals’ personality or ability as likely causes. An outgrowth of this cognitive error is that we tend to explain other’s shortcomings as related to their ability, or attitude, rather than to the circumstances they face.”

Amy Edmondson, Teaming, p. 65

When we over attribute someone’s behavior as that is “just the way they are,” we are doing ourselves and him or herself a disservice. We do ourselves a disservice because by reinforcing a fixed mindset belief about someone else, we subconsciously communicate to ourselves that our own personality traits are our destiny. If you want to believe in your ability to learn, grow, and adapt infinitely, then you owe it to yourself to extend that same malleable belief and behavioral diversity to others. Similarly, you do others a disservice because you box them in, and do not extend them the “benefit of the doubt” that you, yourself, would appreciate. Once you make the fundamental attribution error, it can be VERY HARD to undo this bias because of how your brain has learned to see a specific person based on certain expectations and assumptions, which leads to confirmation bias. Moreover, confirmation bias creates a large barrier to being empathetic.

Situational context has A LOT of influence over our behaviors. Imagine you see yourself to be very agreeable and highly compliant to rules and regulations; therefore, you, at a default, would be the last person to drive in the carpool lane without a passenger accompanying you. However, what if you end up getting a phone call from the hospital that one of your siblings was in a terrible accident, and you need to get to the emergency room as soon as possible. Under this situation, it is likely that you will choose to break the rules and drive in the carpool lane in order to get there as fast as possible. Other drivers on the highway that don’t know your situation, may see you by yourself in the carpool lane and think to themselves that frequently breaking the rules is “just who you are.” Those drivers are now guilty of having committed The Fundamental Attribution Error.

By becoming more aware of how you and others are likely to commit The Fundamental Attribution error, you learn to appreciate the power of context as THE fundamental driver of our experiences, behavior, and how our brain is wired to make meaning, in particular, by constructing emotions. Once you become more appreciative of contextual influence, you gain a greater ability to self-regulate and strategically use context to your advantage to unlock different parts of your personality.

Call to Action: Reflect on how you have committed The Fundamental Attribution Error toward one or two people in your life. In what ways have your overall views of them been limited? Can you come up with evidence of a situation in which they behaved differently than how you would normally describe their personality traits and tendencies of behavior?

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