What Is the Fundamental Attribution Error? (With Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 28, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Individuals may make fundamental attribution errors (FAEs) in a variety of professional scenarios, including job interviews and performance assessments. FAEs can lead to misunderstanding between people and false assumptions about causes for behaviours. Learning about FAEs can help people improve their working relationships and increase a team's overall productivity. In this article, we define what FAE means, discuss why it's important to review a fundamental attribution error example, explain why it occurs, and describe examples of scenarios involving the fundamental attribution error.

What is the fundamental attribution error?

The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive process in which an individual makes an inaccurate assumption about the reason for another person's behaviour. When they use FAE, they often presume that an individual acts in certain ways due to a personality feature or character quality, rather than as a reaction to the external environment or scenario. FAE also affects how we assess our own behaviour. It typically occurs when we emphasize external factors as the cause of our negative behaviours and attribute our positive behaviours to our inherent qualities or characteristics.

Why is it important to review a fundamental attribution error example?

It's helpful to review fundamental attribution error examples to help you identify when you commit FAE and recognize it in others. This is especially important as individuals often evaluate the behaviour and activities of others in a variety of circumstances. Noticing the effect that FAE has on your own and your team's perceptions of others can help reduce its instances and create a stronger team dynamic. When there are fewer assumptions about others' actions and more critical thought about their reasons, it can help a team be more productive and friendly.

Related: What Is Cognitive Ability? Definition and Examples

Why does the fundamental attribution error occur?

Here are some specific reasons the fundamental attribution error may occur:

  • Observers may only have their own perspective: Individuals sometimes make assumptions about another person based on the knowledge they previously acquired, which may provide only a partial explanation. Learning about other viewpoints can help you avoid FAE in the future.

  • People may try to preserve their mental energy: Considering the situations of another person often takes more energy. If you develop efficient time management skills, you may prioritize minimizing the risk of FAE in your daily activities.

  • Emotions may affect a person's capacity to process information: Individuals sometimes transfer their emotions into events they experience. By considering how your emotions may affect others, you may avoid unintentionally engaging FAE in future interactions.

  • Individuals may narrow their focus to a particular memory: If someone criticizes another individual's behaviour or choices in the past, they may feel obligated to recall this occurrence more than others when evaluating their character. You may avoid triggering FAE more effectively if you take the time to recollect the many aspects of an individual's personality.

  • Beliefs about accountability may affect a person's point of view: Concentrating only on an individual's personal accountability for their actions might result in FAE. By being aware of external factors that may affect their behaviour, you may minimize the chance of FAE in your overall evaluation.

Fundamental attribution error examples

Consider the following examples of how FAE can affect situations in the workplace:

Workplace interaction example

Here's an example of FAE in a workplace relationship:

Every day for a week, Eva comes five minutes after her scheduled start time. She often welcomes Diana, her coworker, with a cup of coffee to receive updates. Diana remarked to another colleague that Eva is always late because purchasing coffee is more important to her than working hard and helping her team, attributing this behaviour to Eva's character. Following that, Diana states that she has come late before, but only when she is required to transport her children to primary school in the morning because of unforeseen circumstances.

Later that day, Eva explains she was really late due to a bus schedule problem. Diana acknowledges that she presumed Eva was late due to the coffee and apologizes for the remark, giving a ride to work the next morning. She committed the fundamental attribution error by attributing Eva's acts to her general work ethic and her own identical actions to an external circumstance.

Related: Deductive Reasoning: Definition, Application, and Examples

Teacher and student example

Here's an example of FAE between a teacher and a student:

Mason is a fifth-grade teacher who often interacts with other staff members to maintain high-quality educational methods. A physical education instructor approaches him to explain how one of their mutual students may rather sit on the sidelines than engage in sports activities during class. Mason observes that this same student often gazes out the window during individual work sessions, even when Mason instructs them to concentrate more intently. The PE instructor and Mason agree that the child is most likely a low achiever academically, and then return to their own responsibilities.

After a few months, the student dozes off during class hours. Mason provides an additional study session at lunch, hoping that a one-on-one engagement may help students remain alert and focused. During this meeting, the student discloses a family condition that is giving him focus challenges, and they explore how Mason can assist him. Mason committed the fundamental attribution error by attributing the students' conduct to an overarching trait rather than an external aspect in their lives.

Interview process example

Here's an example of FAE during a job interview:

Cecelia does an interview at a child care service two hours after getting distressing news about her living condition. She decides to stay cheerful and open throughout her interview, but thoughts about the news distract her when Sarah, the recruiting manager, asks a critical question. Cecelia requests the interviewer to repeat the question and spends an extra five minutes finding a response. Sarah makes a note that Cecilia is distractible and lacks the necessary characteristics to become a functional child care provider.

Cecilia calls the agency's human resources department two weeks later to inquire about her employment status. She expresses thanks to Sarah for accommodating her throughout the interview and revealing some of her difficulties. The human resources expert informs Cecelia that Sarah is currently interviewing other applicants for the job opportunity and refuses to relay her message. Sarah committed the fundamental attribution error by assuming that Cecilia's distractibility was due to a personality feature rather than an external occurrence.

Related: Understanding Aptitude Testing (with Different Types)

Industry networking example

Here's an example of FAE occurring during an industry networking event:

Nora is a self-employed web designer in search of new clientele. She attends an industry event to network with businesses in her neighbourhood, hoping to discover customers that share her ideals. At the end of the evening, she meets Jane, who fails to engage her socially and instead presents a lengthy list of prerequisites for any freelancer she employs. Nora determines that Jane has an unsympathetic disposition and informs her fellow freelancers, who decide to shun the organization at future events.

Nora sees Jane at another business gathering a month later. She quickly apologizes for her behaviour the first time they met, stating that she was suffering from a severe headache that contributed to her mood for the duration of the evening. Nora forgives Jane's prior behaviour during their talk, and the two exchange professional contact information. Nora committed the fundamental attribution error when she thought Jane had a certain personality attribute, rather than considering that an external influence may have contributed to it.

Performance evaluation example

Here's an example of FAE during a performance evaluation:

Emma is a technical analyst for a corporation that maintains company databases. One day she notices a new line of data that reflects previous information, so she removes it and sends a polite email to her team members, reminding them to check in with her before adding new data. A new analyst named Andrew reveals he added the data and asserts that it's actually correct according to the source he received. After correcting him again and receiving the same response, Emma decides Andrew is a stubborn person.

A few months later, Emma submits a performance evaluation that comments on his stubborn qualities. Andrew schedules a one-on-one meeting with her to discuss his evaluation in more detail, as this remark caused some confusion. He explains he was only following the instructions of another supervisor, who told him to include that line of data. Emma committed the fundamental attribution error when she assumed Andrew was inherently stubborn instead of investigating another explanation for his response.

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