Latticework of Mental Models: Fundamental Attribution Error

The first impression is the last impression, so goes the old adage with a lot of inherent truth. However, if you’re into the business of working with people, it’s the first impression you shouldn’t trust.

Had I gone with my first impressions about some of the strangers I met in my life, I wouldn’t have found my best friends. I am sure you will agree if you look back in your life and trace the history of your relationships with your best buddies. In fact, you should ask your old friends about how they thought of you (in the first meeting) as a prospective candidate for a long-term friendship 🙂

Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we have a natural tendency to attribute his behaviour to his personality. One who is cold and unresponsive is  shy or introvert or perhaps arrogant. One who seems warm and lively is an extrovert.

Yes, sometimes you are right, but often you are falling for what is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. This error is that you  associate bad behaviour with the person and not the situation.

Isn’t it possible that this new guy is also a victim of some unusual situation and has been provoked by a recent stressful event?

Daniel Kahneman has termed this bias as – What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI)

So what explains the reason behind this error?

Part of the reason is this –

A human mind is always struggling to make sense of the world. When we witness an evil act, it’s hard to imagine that it was committed by an ordinary mind mired in a series of terrible events and social pressures. It’s more believable that the bad behaviour was a result of the working of a deviant mind.

“Some of the greatest atrocities known to mankind,” writes Michael Mauboussin, “resulted from putting normal people into bad situations.”

That probably explains how Hitler’s Nazi army ended up massacring millions of people. Of course, this is not an argument to justify the horrifying acts of Nazi army, but it sure helps to understand that not everyone in the Nazi army was inherently evil and heartless person.

Rolf Dobelli, author of the excellent book – Art of Thinking Clearly, writes – The fundamental attribution error is particularly useful for whittling negative events into neat little packages. For example, the ‘blame’ for wars we lazily push on to individuals: Hitler single handedly caused World War II.

By acknowledging our propensity for this bias, we can also improve our relationships. One of the root cause of unhealthy relationships is the human tendency to find intentions behind other people’s mistakes. We fail to realize that many times those mistakes were a result of an unfavourable environment.

The fundamental attribution is the reason we create false labels and form incorrect assumptions about people. First impressions are often inaccurate.

To avoid the fundamental attribution error, focus on the context first rather than the individual.

Like all other cognitive biases, fighting the natural force of behavioural bias isn’t easy.

No matter how hard you try, you’ll find yourself falling for attribution bias, even after knowing about it.

But try you must.