Breaking-Up – The Fundamental Attribution Error

A friend recently broke up with her boy friend of a couple of years. It had been obvious to all those who knew them that the split was inevitable but when it came, he seemed to take it a little harder than she did. He’s a really dedicated and hard worker and directed a lot of his energies into his career. As a consequence, he hadn’t taken the time to deal with the impending break-up as she did – while it didn’t take him completely by surprise, he was a little annoyed that she didn’t seem to be hurting as much about it as he did. In truth, she had been morning the loss in her own way for a long time before the actual break-up.

In his pain he lashed out at her with some hurtful words, stormed out, and drove away. When I talked to her about it, she said that while it was a little out of character, she wasn’t going to hold it against him because the situation is one that is completely out of the norm. Their relationship had been good, it had run its course and it was time to move on. His behavior at the end struck her as being completely different that she concluded it had to have more to do with the situation than the individual thus avoiding the fundamental attribution error..

We make the fundamental attribution error anytime we assume that dispositional or personality traits play a great role in determining someones behavior than situational factors do. There are many examples of this, but one of my favorite deals with two basketball players shooting free throws. With one of them, the lights are on high allowing them to make more baskets and with the other one, the lights are much dimmer which prevents them from making as many. When people are asked which player is better, they almost always say that the one who made the most hoops, IRRELEVANT of the obvious disadvantage that having less light creates.

There are many reason why human being would be prone to commit the fundamental attribution error, all of which stem from our desire to predict others behavior because this will give us a survival advantage. As a tendency, however, it may have run its course in being evolutionary advantageous given that diversity of the modern world.

Regardless, when someone is thrust into a completely new situation EXPECT to see them acting out of character because behavior can be very dependent on environmental or situational factors. Keeping this in mind can help prevent the fundamental attribution error and allow you to stay closer to the truth of the matter.