This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as fundamental attribution error. Fundamental attribution error describes how, when judging others’ actions, we unfairly tend to give too much causal weight to their character and not enough to the circumstances in which they acted. In other words, we do not take into account the situational factors that may have caused someone to make unethical decisions. We jump to the conclusion that they are bad people because they did a bad thing. That said, it is important to remember that situational factors are usually explanations for why people err, they are not excuses. The best way to avoid this error, experts say, is to put ourselves in the shoes of others and try to envision the pressures they might have faced.
Another implication of the fundamental attribution error is that we may be too easy on ourselves, if we are not careful. We may too readily find situational factors, organizational pressures, and the like and then simply excuse our own conduct.
The fundamental attribution error is, as Professor Paul Zak writes, the tendency to attribute “causes of behavior to actors (i.e., internal, dispositional factors) rather than the situation (i.e., external, environmental factors).” We see that other people have done bad things, and we assume that it is because of their character rather than the fact that they were, perhaps, striving so hard to please their superiors that they did not even notice the ethical issue that they flubbed.
According to some psychologists, the other side of the coin from the fundamental attribution error is the actor-observer bias which is people’s tendency to over-emphasize the role of the situation in their own behaviors. They insist there’s nothing wrong with their character, because their errors are accounted for by some situational factor—the boss’s pressure, the need to feed their families, etc.
Professor Francesca Gino writes: “In particular, one mistake we systematically make is known as the correspondence bias. When making attributions as we evaluate others, we tend to ascribe too little influence to the situation and too much to their dispositions. In simpler terms, we tend to believe that people’s behavior reflects their unique dispositions and skills, when many times it actually reflects aspects of the situation in which they find themselves.” This sounds a lot like a different name for the fundamental attribution error.
To learn more about how our own biases can affect our perceptions of others, watch Self-serving Bias.
The case study on this page, “Limbaugh on Drug Addiction,” illustrates the role of fundamental attribution error in radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s perception of drug abuse before becoming addicted to painkillers, himself. For a case study about the roles of fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias in the controversy over a popular memoir, read “A Million Little Pieces.”
Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias.
Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.