Are you Guilty of the Fundamental Attribution Error?

attribution error

I recently read a very good article in Vital Smarts ( – the folks who put out Crucial Conversations and Critical Conversations. They were looking at how to help women avoid social backlash when expressing opinions forcefully (and investigating whether or not women who displayed anger were judged more harshly than men who demonstrated the same behaviour. To no one’s surprise they are!).

What I would like to pass on, are some strategies that anyone, male or female, can use at work that will let them express displeasure at what is happening without facing a major blowback. It involves putting a frame (an explanation) around what you are going to say, and there are three explanations that help you express your feelings without generating as much negative response.

Behavior Frame: Describe what you are going to say before you say it: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”
Value Frame: Describe your motivation or intent is in value-laden terms before making the statement of disapproval: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
Inoculation Frame: Describe what you are going to say and identify any unconscious bias that may exist in the listener. “I know it’s a little bold for a new employee to criticize what is happening but I am going to express my opinion directly”.

The research conducted around using these three approaches indicated that the first two, giving a Behavior Frame and a Value Frame worked well for both men and women while the Inoculation Frame works well in the short term. The authors said, however, that more testing needs to be done to determine the long term value of this 3rd strategy.

Using one of these 3 explanations appears to work because it clarifies your intent, and one of the challenges we all face in our communication is that people see our behaviour and from that deduce our intent, accurately or not. We, on the other hand, know what our intent is, and are often surprised that we could be so badly misread.

These strategies reduce the chances that those who see us will engage in what social scientists refer to as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” – that is, to attribute the cause of others’ behaviour to personality rather than to external elements. So, if we get a traffic ticket for speeding in a school zone, it’s because the officer is power hungry and just wants to let us know who’s boss rather than thinking that perhaps he saw a kid just about get run over 10 minutes earlier. Of course we generally are aware of the external circumstances that create our own behaviour, so we seldom acknowledge to ourselves that we are power hungry when we demand that our employees do things the way we want them to be done. If we lose our temper it’s because someone did something to make us lose it, while others who lose their tempers are undisciplined, uncontrolled, and control freaks!

As Gilbert and Malone comment: Despite the homilies of philosophers, no one has yet found a simple formula for understanding others. The problem, of course, is that a person’s inner self is hidden from view. Character, motive, belief, desire, and intention play leading roles in people’s construal of others, and yet none of these constructs can actually be observed. (Psychological Bulletin, 1995)

Of course, if the Fundamental Attribution Error is taken to an extreme, it results in the “you can’t blame him he is just a victim of a bad childhood” defence so beloved by those defending rapists, serial killers, and assorted law breakers. The way we can stay a reasonable middle ground between these two errors? Just ensure that you don’t excuse your own bad behaviour on an outside influence while you blame the character of another for the same failings.

Speaking our intent is a powerful communication tool that helps us to avoid misunderstanding and the resulting conflict that arises from this. Saying things such as: “I would really like to be able to work this out with you”, or “I think it is important that we both get our needs met in any solution that we accept” increases your chances that the conflict will be resolved in a positive manner.