Judging others is natural. But falling into this cognitive pattern can sabotage your relationships.
Imagine that you and your best friend are trying to find lunch, and you’re desperately hungry. You chose burritos last time, so it’s your friend’s turn to pick.
Just when it seems like your lunch companion is about to choose, they crush you with, “I’m just not sure. What do you think?”
You’re so hungry, you may want to huff off to the nearest fast food restaurant for a burger and leave your friend behind. But instead, you practice patience and laugh off their indecisive nature.
This measured response falls into a cognitive bias trap known as fundamental attribution error. And though this example may seem harmless, fundamental attribution error can have more drastic consequences when we judge people using this psychological bias.
Knowing when your attribution bias comes into play may be the first step to shifting your thinking to become more considerate of the complex lives of those around you.
Fundamental attribution error — or “correspondence bias,” as it’s also called — essentially attributes a person’s behavior to their personality. It fails to consider any situational factors that may play a part.
Knowing every detail of someone else’s life is impossible. Instead of contemplating external factors that could cause a person to act a certain way, it’s easier to assume behavior is part of their character.
But when people are fully aware of the obstacles and hindrances that might impact someone’s life, they tend to be more lenient and less judgmental.
An example of fundamental attribution error might be thinking that someone’s negative circumstances are because of who they are as a person or their personality. This same person may also attribute their own difficulties to external factors unrelated to themselves.
It may not be possible to entirely eliminate the fundamental attribution error from thinking. But practicing mindfulness and empathy can help bring other people’s situations to the forefront of our minds, rather than judging their character too quickly.
Fundamental attribution error runs parallel to several other attribution biases. These attribution errors include:
- Self-serving attributions. This bias gives all the credit of success to the individual, while all the failures are blamed on external circumstances.
- Ultimate attribution error. This is fundamental attribution error on a larger scale. You may view your group, such as political party or favorite sports team, as moral and rational, but your opponent or rival as antagonistic and unethical.
- Fundamental attribution error. This cognitive errorattributes outcomes to a person’s internal character, rather than external factors.
Remember your friend who couldn’t decide what to eat? Their indecision may have been attributed to a character trait. Or there might have been several external reasons why they had trouble picking a place to eat, such as:
- Resources. They may have been short on gas and didn’t want to drive.
- Food allergies. They may have wanted you to choose based on your dietary restrictions.
- Budget. They may be deferring to you because you’re on a strict budget.
Instead of finding out external motivation, fundamental attribution error is often quick to paint someone with a broad brush based on their character.
You may be seeing others through the lens of fundamental attribution error if you:
- consider a late coworker lazy, but give yourself a break when you walk in 5 minutes late because your kid is sick and traffic was a nightmare
- judge a mother as a bad parent when her child throws a temper tantrum in the grocery aisle, but when your own child causes a public spectacle, it’s due to missing her nap time
- curse the person in traffic as an aggressive jerk for cutting you off without considering that they may be rushing someone to the hospital
Dealing with judgmental people
Encountering someone stuck in fundamental attribution error thinking can be frustrating. If a person judges your character based on one incident, it may be tempting to respond back with equal rudeness.
Even if they didn’t afford you grace or empathy, you can still be the better person and respond with awareness to their situation.
Judging others can be part of being human. But quick judgments about a person’s character may often be inaccurate, and how you think about someone can impact how you treat them.
It’s important to try to reign in fundamental attribution error when assessing those around you. Acknowledging that everyone has a mix of character traits and situational influence over their behavior can help build connection, rather than pushing them away for perceived character flaws.
However, judgments and assessments may be necessary in some cases. But being kind and balanced in your behavior attributions can broaden your social and emotional awareness.
Subverting fundamental attrition error when you feel it creep up can help you strengthen close bonds with your friends and loved ones.
If they trust you won’t jump to an unfair character judgment, they may feel safer opening up to you about their lives.
In professional relationships, understanding an employee’s personal situation can lead to an opportunity for resolution. This opportunity would be entirely missed if their lateness was chalked up to a personality flaw.
Getting over correspondence bias may not be as easy as kicking a bad habit, but there are ways to reduce this cognitive phenomenon.
One 2016 study showed that short mindfulness exercises reduced correspondence bias. How did the group being studied enter a state of mindfulness? Simply by taking 5 minutes to thoroughly observe a raisin.
When you flex your consciousness with mindfulness exercises, you can expand your social perspective and empathic concern. These tools may lead to more positive social interactions.
So, the key is to find the right mindfulness activities for you. Some possible ways to increase mindfulness include:
- Listening to podcasts. 10% Happier features meditation experts to help listeners learn how to train their brain.
- Sitting still. This can include mindful breathing, meditating, and taking in nature.
- Focusing on one thing. Turn off the distractions and focus on one thing at a time, like reading a book, crocheting, or building with Legos.
Fundamental attribution error tends to unfairly characterize a person’s disposition or behaviors, rather than accounting for external circumstances that might’ve played a part.
Being unfairly judged by others through fundamental attribution error can be hurtful. You may not want this bias to potentially sabotage your perception of others.
Self-awareness of when fundamental attribution error is influencing your thinking can be an important first step in reducing this cognitive pattern.
Taking time to transform your thought processes toward understanding others can help you curb unfair judging. It may also be possible to limit your fundamental attribution error with mindfulness exercises.
After training your brain to avoid this thinking pattern, your broadened social awareness can help you build positive relationships in your personal and professional life.
Talking with a therapist may also be helpful in sorting through potentially judgmental tendencies and feelings. Visit the Psych Central guide to seeking mental health support to find a therapist.