Attributions: The Fundamental Attribution Error and The Self-Serving Bias

November 25, 2009

In this third video in my series on attribution, I explain the two powerful attribution errors that often lead us to develop an inaccurate explanation for the behavior we observe in ourselves and others.  The explanation for why folks behave the way they do will always be a combination of something internal which we believe they can control – e.g. personality, attitudes, values – and something external which they cannot easily control – e.g. policies, procedures, training, staffing, equipment.

There is a powerful tendency to attribute to internal causes nearly all of the behavior we observe in others.  So we blame folks when things go wrong and make them heroes when things go well. This is a Fundamental Attribution Error because it is very likely that their behavior was driven by external things outside of their control.

Systemic causes of behavior are powerful but often very difficult to clearly identify and understand. Instead of struggling with the complexity, people prefer quick, seemingly simple explanations (those folks are lazy) and solutions (get rid of the deadwood) so they can move on to the next fire they have to put out. They rarely see how their own actions cause the very problems they lament.

There is an equally powerful tendency to cast ourselves in the best light possible as we explain our own behavior.  When things go well, it is of course something about us – e.g. talent, attitudes, motivation – that can explain our success. And when things go poorly, we always seem to find an excuse in factors beyond our control. This Self-Serving Bias leads to inaccurate explanations, ineffective action, and interpersonal conflict.

These attribution errors are so powerful that even if you are aware of them you will struggle to avoid them, especially when the stakes are high and the problems hit close to home.  But you will never become a truly effective leader or follower until you can master your attributions.

“The cure can be worse than the disease.” Peter Senge

Tomorrow I will discuss one process we can use to help us explain the behavior we observe in others, so stay tuned!

Related Posts:

Attributions: An Introduction

Attribution: Let’s Talk First About Locus Of Control

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Comments (2)

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  1. Bret,
    This post is so very timely. I have been speaking with a old co-worker that has had to pick up some management duties in her department. She talked at length about the “bad attitude” of her co-worker. Once I heard that…red flag. I asked her if it could be that her co-worker’s increasingly “bad attitude” could possibly be due to the fact that the system (way they do things in the department) changed dramatically recently. Her response… “Nope, just a bad attitude.” I got off the phone feeling very sad for that department and for me wasting time trying to make her see her attribution error. As you can imagine, there is also a huge amount of self serving bias on going there as well. My former co-worker, for whom I have alot of respect, just doesn’t get it.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You are correct, Sharon. Your friend could not see the bias if it hit her over the head. Very powerful. People only change when they are willing. Thanks for sharing!! Bret