Me, Unlucky – You, Stupid.

Have you ever noticed that when you make a mistake you are inclined to see it as a bit of bad luck, but when you watch someone else make a mistake you tend to believe they are careless or foolish?

If you have noticed this tendency in yourself it means just one thing – you are normal.  This behaviour is so common in fact that there is a name for the phenomenon – the fundamental attribution error.  This ‘error’ means that we are inclined to blame the actions of others on their disposition and our own actions on our situation.

This approach – now also commonly called the attribution effect – was first named in the 1960s but more than fifty years later there is still no definite explanation for it.  There are, naturally, theories as to why we are inclined to do this –

  • Some researchers believe the fundamental attribution error is caused by the so-called ‘just world’ phenomenon.  Attributing failure and suffering to dispositional causes (i.e. the way we are) as opposed to situational causes (i.e. what happens outside us) – makes us feel more secure as it convinces us we have complete control over everything that happens to us.  This is, ironically, a particularly unjust attitude as it tends to blame victims of crimes and even victims of accidents for their own suffering.
  • The ‘salience of the actor’ theory suggests that we tend not to be able to see how a situation or circumstance may be having an effect on another person and therefore believe them to be in complete control of what is happening.  This happens because we can only see the ‘outside’ of others and may have no insight as to how they are feeling or thinking.  On the other hand, we are more connected to our own inner worlds and therefore are able to see how circumstances outside us might well impact inside us.
  • Lack of ‘effortful adjustment’.  When we are tired or overloaded or just simply unmotivated we can fail to use our brains properly.  Because this is the case, we are often inclined not to add up the situational and the dispositional elements in a given situation and thus make an error in judging the behaviour of others.
A number of techniques have been found to be effective in reducing the fundamental attribution error and in a way they can all be summed up in one word – empathy.
What would it feel like to be in that person’s place?
What would you do if that happened to you?
How would you cope?
How would you feel?
Simple, really.  We are easily able to avoid this error and instead see the behaviour of others in all its complexity and nuance.  We have the cognitive capacity to understand others and their actions in an extremely sophisticated way – all we have to do is switch it on.




    1. I agree, Lisa – I think it would make a big difference in the world if we could connect like this with others.

Leave a Reply to creatingreciprocity Cancel reply