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The Fundamental Attribution Error

What can Psychology teach us? 

A series of short articles about useful ideas from psychology.




The Fundamental Attribution Error

This is a psychological phenomenon coined by the Stanford Psychology professor Lee Ross based on a psychology experiment by Psychologists Jones and Harris (1967).


The fundamental attribution error describes a tendency we have to excuse our own behaviour as being a consequence of external factors whilst at the same time blaming other people’s behaviours on their personality and internal disposition or character.
An example might be that while we excused ourselves for having a fight because we needed to defend ourselves from the aggression of others, we might describe someone else having a fight because they are by their nature aggressive and violent.
When we studied this in psychology at university there was a clever saying to describe this. It went: ‘I’ am a freedom fighter, ‘you’ are a guerrilla and ‘he’ is a terrorist”. In other words, the more distant our relationship to the people, the more likely we are to negatively judge their character as a result of their actions.

I think this is a really interesting phenomenon because you can see this play out in so many different situations. Think about international conflicts, for example. Our nation has gone to war to defend human rights, but that ‘other’ country has gone to war because they are an aggressive bad nation etc.

Putting this into the context of mental health then you can imagine that this may well be some subconscious process going on that mean that all the evidence that family, friends, therapists might bring to someone’s attention to evidence the existence of a problem might very well be being discounted and excused because of the fundamental attribution error. The individual may constantly discount all their concerns because, in their minds, all these things that happened can be perfectly reasonably explained by outside influences. “I didn’t crash the car because of my addiction ( arguably an internal personality disposition ), I crashed the car because the light was poor, the other guy didn’t get out of the way etc.

People who work in the field of addiction describe a phenomenon called ‘denial’ where addicts don’t seem to be able to recognise that they have a problem and, instead, keep blaming it on outside influences. It is worth considering that the Fundamental Attribution Error has something to do with this phenomenon and it may not be a phenomenon restricted to addiction but perhaps a piece of human nature which is brought into sharp relief in the context of the series of crisis that addiction often precipitates.

You may well wonder how someone can overcome something so seemingly instinctual and subconscious as this but one way to help people might be by bringing this phenomenon into their consciousness by showing them clearly that it exists. Once we have started to recognise this obviously in our own nature, it’s hard not to notice it more and be aware of it gradually so we become more prepared to consider that it is our own values and decisions that need to be reevaluated and real therapy towards changing can be done.

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