Imagine this: You’re waiting for a Zoom meeting to start on a rainy day, and your new colleague is 5 minutes late with no warning. You find yourself getting agitated, and perhaps even considering the behavior to be rude or disrespectful. Humans like to imbue meaning into other people’s behavior. It’s what we do. So when a new colleague and I are supposed to have a meeting on Zoom and he’s late, I’ll come up with a reason for his lateness—most likely that he’s a jerk, or entitled, or something along those lines. These reasons I come up with are about him as a person—personal attributes he has. I’m not so likely to come up with the possibility that he had an emergency to attend to. (Well, maybe because of COVID-19, I’ll think of that. But not before COVID-19.) Of course, if I knew it was an emergency, I’d feel a lot more sympathetic. I wouldn’t be annoyed.
So when my colleague finally gets on the call, he says, breathless: “So sorry, the house is flooding.”
Now I feel like a jerk, but I’m glad I didn’t say the snarky things I was thinking, because I try to treat people respectfully.
Why was my first reaction to think he’s a jerk rather than think there might be an emergency? I did what most Americans do: I attributed the colleague’s behavior to internal causes—in this case, personality—rather than situational causes, such as an emergency. This tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to internal causes rather than situational ones is called the fundamental attribution error. (Fun fact: The fundamental attribution error is less strong in collectivist cultures such as those typically found in Asian and South American countries.)
Avoiding Fundamental Attribution Errors
Particularly with negative events, the tendency can lead to problems: We’re likely to attribute negative events to internal causes in other people—their personality, their values, or some other aspect about them, not to the situation itself. We then can form an erroneous negative opinion about them and their behavior. Which is precisely why it’s important to understand other people’s perspectives. Because my perspective on the situation is often distant from the other person’s perspective (because we’re each falling prey to the fundamental attribution error) and we’re both only operating with partial, and biased, information.
We also can make internal attributions based, as least in part, on aspects of the person that are visible, such as race, gender, attractiveness, and so on. We don’t take into account their situations. Many non-Black Americans, learning more about the lived experience of being Black in America, recently have become aware of one form of a pitfall of the fundamental attribution error. For instance, when reading in the news about the arrest of a Black man, we non-Blacks might have attributed the arrest to something about that man (“he must have done something to deserve being arrested”), but not about the situation (“there was only a vague description of the alleged perpetrator”). Learning about the situation—about the lived experience is vital to understanding a fuller picture.
That’s why the recent push in workplaces and personal lives for non-Black Americans to understand the perspective of Black Americans—what their situations have been and are like—is so important. So that we can override the fundamental attribution error and change our behavior. Reading books by Black authors that describe their history, experience, and perspective, as on the best-seller lists, can provide some of that missing information. So can talking with people from different backgrounds and life experiences, or learning about the lived experience of being Black by standing in their shoes—literally—in virtual reality. Get curious. Turn on your empathy. Change your attributions, and the behaviors that flow from them will change, too.
Robin Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, executive coach, and CEO of Live in Their World, a company that addresses issues of bias and incivility in the workplace through virtual reality.