American Society & the Fundamental Attribution Error

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Did you ever overhear a conversation between two people discussing the ills our our society that went something like this?:

“Did you hear?”


“They want to raise the minimum wage again.  Small business people are going to suffer and pass all the cost along to you and me!!”

“I know but people have to eat and right now you can’t make a living wage even if you have two minimum wage jobs.”

“They don’t have to work those minimum wage jobs.  They are just to lazy to work hard and get something better.  They have a choice don’t they? Besides look at how many kids they have and none of them with the same father!  They are so irresponsible that they have kids they can’t afford and expect the rest of us to pick up the tab!”

“But, the deck is stack against most of these people.  They are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder and the way our society works it is very difficult for many to even see a way out of the drudgery of their lives.  It’s sad and depressing.  As a society we need to do more to help those with the least among us.”

No way!  This is a matter of personal responsibility and accountability.  There is no such thing as a free ride.  These people simply make bad choices and are too lazy to earn a better living.  They would rather sit around drinking, doing drugs and collecting!”

The conversation sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it?  Most of us have taken either  the blue or green side at one time or another in our lives.  The speaker in blue tends to attribute the economic state of the poor to something in the character or traits of the poor person:  they are lazy, irresponsible and make bad choices.  The speaker in green tends to see the condition of the poor as a function less of their character and more of the social situation which oppresses them.

The person taking the blue position and attributing the condition of the poor to individual internal disposition or character trait is making what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error; i.e., attributing too much weight to individual traits and character and not enough weight to the social situation in which people find themselves and, in this way, blaming the poor internal disposition of the poor for their being poor. We tend to reverse this process for the rich.  In the end, many think, each category, rich and poor get what they deserve, more or less .

Individualistic cultures like the United States tend to make this error more readily that do more collectivist societies.  Across the political spectrum, conservatives make the fundamental attribution error more readily than liberals while the most liberal among us may miss those aspects of social problems which are in fact grounded in the internal disposition of others.

On balance, at least in the West, we have had a significant tendency to blame the “have nots” for not having the internal disposition necessary for success and to laud the “haves” for their supposed strength of character and  internal disposition in favor of hard work.  Assistance to the poor and least advantaged among us is even argued to be an encouragement to further indulge the natural disposition to sloth and debauchery of the poor, while aid to rich, usually in the form of tax breaks, is thought to be providing additional resources to those with the moral character to make the best use of it.

Maintenance and even re-enforcement of the fundamental attribution error presents a major impediment to the resolution of complex social problems which  only worsens as economic disparity increases.  The rich will need more aid and the poor less, as we continue to tilt with the wrong enemy.  As Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s not the people. It’s the situation, stupid.”

Notice that simply by adding the word “stupid” to the sentence above,  I have committed the fundamental attribution error myself.  It is way to easy and natural a sin to commit and should have be included in any list of deadly sins.  Like any sin, this sin too must be repented of by creating a new mental situation in which we forgive ourselves our missteps, humble ourselves before the complexities of existence  and open ourselves to a more profound realization of how each of our life situations, and the relationships we have in those situations, impact both who we are in any given moment and who we, as a people, will become in all the moments to come.

A short graphical summary of the attribution error.

A simple example from a work situation.

8 thoughts on “American Society & the Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. Hi Tom — Great points and what timing! I’m teaching an influence skills workshop up in Toronto this week, and one of tomorrow’s big topics is the FAE. It’s particularly deadly when you combine it with the Confirmation Bias: first I decide it’s the person and not the situation, and then everything I see “confirms” my belief, and I don’t search for anything that tells me I’m wrong. And if someone brings me some disconfirming evidence, Cognitive Dissonance comes into play and I simply dismiss the new and inconvenient facts. In hockey it would be a hat trick!

    • Thanks Mary. The fundamental attribution error, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are definitely a powerful trio. Their combined power can literally cement false belief and misguided social policy and/or managerial practices into the structure of what many members of society or a company regard as the natural and normal way of things. I remember teaching this stuff with you years ago at a client company and one manager who kept illustrating all three while he argued with you that none of them existed. 🙂

  2. I had never heard of this but it is so true. Awareness of this can help anyone in so many situations where perceptions of others motives and or actions causes negative reactions. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Tom – I look forward to your interesting and thought-provoking posts. When I saw this latest start off with red text, I said to myself – “whoops, web hiccup” and shifted to a nice black & white large text screen reader….
    A paragraph or two further on, I realized that wasn’t going to work, so I went back to fiddle with the screen size and contrast so I could more readily read it as posted. I was successful, but distracted – and there are many who come to the web with fewer options for their eyes, or only with their ears.

  4. Tom – I look forward to reading your interesting and thought-provoking posts. So when I saw this one lead off with red text, I thought “whoops, web hiccup” and shifted to Safari Reader – nice big black & white easy to read…
    Pretty soon it stopped making sense, and I went back to the original presentation, fiddling with screen contrast etc. so I could read more comfortably. That worked – but I was distracted.
    Many come to the web with eyes that aren’t what they once were, and more than a few not with their eyes at all.
    PS: if I click through from this post to any of your earlier posts, they too are presented in red text…. this ‘feature’ may behave differently in different browsers, and for people with those other computers, so I humbly suggest keeping the colorful gradations in your thinking, but present your opinions in black and white….

  5. Tom – yes, I’m usually on a Mac. Sorry about the double comment – first time I tried to send it I got an error message and no (apparent) result. Then I tried later from work, and they both showed up…

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