Think The Person Who Cut You Off Is A Jerk? That's Fundamental Attribution Error

What's up with that woman who's always late to English 101? She clearly has bad time management skills, or maybe she just doesn't care about doing well in school. Either way, she definitely has no respect for the professor—probably for authority in general. Does this judgy internal monologue sound familiar? If you're attributing someone's bad behavior to who they are as a person and not stopping to consider their circumstances (in the universe we just made up, that woman is a single mother with two jobs and a full class schedule. We hope you're happy), you're committing what's known as the fundamental attribution error.

Related: Having Been In Someone's Shoes Makes You Less Empathetic

It's What's On The Outside That Counts

In psychology, attribution theory describes our tendency to look for a cause to explain the behavior of others. That cause comes in one of two forms: internal, in terms of their personality and disposition; and external, in terms of their situation and circumstances. The fundamental attribution error, then, is the mistake you make when you attribute someone's behavior to internal causes without considering the effect that external causes might have. It happens when you blame someone's unemployment on poor work ethic without considering the state of the economy, when you decide someone who reacts harshly to gentle teasing as oversensitive without thinking it might be because past teasing hasn't been so gentle, and when you curse the bad driver who took your right of way without wondering what has him in such a hurry.

Related: Mirror Neurons Activate With Your Actions And The Actions Of Others

Do Unto Others

Ready for the sad truth? You hardly ever do this to yourself. Although you're more likely to blame someone else's actions on who they are as a person, you're also more likely to blame your own bad deeds on external circumstances. Doesn't seem fair, does it? Next time you leap to judgment about a person's disposition, stop and put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they aren't such a bad person after all.

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Written by Curiosity Staff January 6, 2017