Most of us who have taken an introductory psychology course have learned about the “fundamental attribution error”, which is the tendency to attribute behavior to individual characteristics instead of situational factors. The assumption here is that situations exert much greater influence on behavior than personal attributes like desires, emotions, goals, personality, or temperament. The FAE has achieved the status as received wisdom – a solid scientific fact. It’s hard to find criticism of the concept. However, as John Harvey and colleagues pointed out years ago, you can’t talk about “error” without addressing the accuracy of the attribution in specific instances. Imputing dispositional characteristics can be both a logical and empirically tenable explanation for behavior. FAE defenders might respond: well, when everybody does the same thing in the same situation, obviously the situation is calling the shots. Take, for instance, the Milgram experiments where just almost all subjects ending up administering what they thought were painful electrical shocks to other participants in the study. Their personality and moral qualms weren’t worth diddly-squat.
To which I would respond: you can’t use extreme example to prove a general case. Just about everyone breaks under torture too, provided it’s painful or long enough. That doesn’t mean everyone reacts the same way to, say, mild stomach discomfort. And even though everyone “ultimately” ends up behaving a certain way in some types of situations, the details matter. In the Milgram studies, subjects varied in how much and how long they resisted before caving in to the researchers’ requests. If the experiments had stopped earlier, there would have been a lot of individual variation – and since the experimental situation was the same for all subjects, attributing behavior variation to characteristics of the individual subjects would have been reasonable and not erroneous.
And then there’s the idea that people from “individualist” western cultures are more prone to the fundamental attribution error than people from “collectivist” Asian cultures since the latter are more likely to explain behavior in situational terms than individualist westerners. But attributions aren’t just something one absorbs from the wider culture – they are something people use to predict and influence the behavior of others. An attribution has staying power when it helps us navigate the social environment. An inaccurate attribution isn’t a particularly useful attribution. If you live in a society that values adherence to situation-specific social rules over individual expression, it’s probably more accurate to attribute behavior to situations in those societies – but less so in individualist societies. Context matters.
Let’s change the terminology and call the FAE an “attribution heuristic”. Heuristics are general rules of thumb that often work well enough but sometimes don’t. The Fundamental Attribution Error is dead! Long live the Attribution Heuristic!
Harvey, John H.; Town, Jerri P.; Yarkin, Kerry L. How fundamental is "the fundamental attribution error"? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 40(2), Feb 1981, 346-349.