Friday, December 26, 2008

Fundamental Attribution Error

There are always some memories, good or bad, that stay with us and we don't know why we cannot forget them. For example, there are certain words or situations that are just stuck in my mind and although I know in which context they were used, the situation was so insignificant that, rationally, they do not warrant a permanent etch in one's memory. But there they are...

One such term is 'Fundamental Attribution Error'. I remember it, not for the concept but the situation in which it came up. I was caught up in neck-deep work, running against deadlines when I received a call from a senior colleague in my function. He was going to give a talk on Organizational Behavior and wanted me to take up this topic. Being caught up in a lot of work, I politely declined but the term stuck on. And at repeated, random intervals, this term keeps popping up like an affinity diagram - say the news reports on Mumbai terror attacks brought up religious fundamentalism and this term jumped up from the depth of my cranium; or my hubby was speaking to his friend and said 'Don't put fundaes' and POP! There it was, dancing in front of my eyes... I can go on and on about the various affinities which bring up this term. So today, I decided to finally read on it in-depth in the hope that finally, it will cease to haunt me!

I read it up online here. Interesting concept! What this theory talks about is simply that we have a tendency to judge people basis what 'kind' of personality he / she has rather than the external forces which are at play in the situation. Here, external forces could range from social, political or environmental. Which translates to this : say, there is a student who by nature, is not disciplined in school and has not done his homework for the day. While judging this student, we may tend to say 'What better can you expect out of him - he is anyway an in-disciplined child', rather than considering external conditions influencing his behavior viz., illness or not understanding the class work or genuine personal problems. The reverse theory to this is actor-observer theory which over-emphasizes the situation rather than the nature of the person. So, while judging this case, applying the latter theory, we may tend to say 'Poor child, he must have had a bad headache OR the teacher must have not explained well in class' while the genuine reason could have been that the child is lazy and not disciplined.

Goosey Gander! Too much Gnyaan! But, I started applying this to my life and my experiences and I came up with the following insight :

Just the other evening, I felt like having one of those marathon conversations with my hubby. So, I pulled out of my fervent blogging and asked him if he was free. "Sure", he said. So I picked up two steaming-cups-of-coffee and sat across him and was just about to launch into one of my never-ending bakbak sessions when he said, "I have to call chechi". He picked up his phone and started speaking to her. And there I was, listening to a conversation I could not understand a word of (since it was in Malayalam). I waited for a few minutes then got up and walked off, bugged and hurt about his 'insensitivity'.

Later, when he asked me what had happened, I, being me, launched in this story of how he should have told me he wanted to speak to his sis and so should not have called me for the conversation... then should have told me how long the conversation would take... and how could he do this to me / treat me like this... and these had hurt me deeply.

With every word and every crib and every way in which I described how fatally he had hurt me, my hubby was more and more surprised.

"But you never told me you wanted to talk so much... I thought you just wanted to have coffee..." (Since I had asked, in so-many-words 'Are you free?' not indicating that I wanted to speak to him - hence he was free to assume anything!)

"I didn't think you would get so worked up; I would have told you how long my call would take..."

"Of course I love you... what were you thinking..."

:) Now I know FAE was at play. I attributed his behavior to a deliberate choice, but he might have made another choice if he had been aware of what I was assuming. In other words, I was attributing it to his personality than the situation or context. However, when it came to analyzing my own behavior, I gave greater importance to the situation I was in than my own personality traits. Classic FAE!

And coming to think of it, most of us do it all the time and some of us do / have done this most of the times in their lives.

Phew! Now that I have read up on the term as well as applied it in real life, I hope this concept stops haunting me! But, as I said earlier, the concept may stop chasing me but will I ever be able to rid myself of this error? Let's leave that for another cup of coffee!!! :)


  1. Nice post. Hoping for more such fundaes :)

  2. Big time ! Fundamental Attribution Error !! have given me new ammunition to fight other battles..when the coffee is bad or when the phone rings !!


    Hmm !!

  3. A lot can be written - an extremely interesting subject. Certain concepts like the Heisenberg's Principle and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy come to my mind.
    A lot to do with our mind set and our perception. In coaching, we talk about concepts like 'Clarifying'and 'Placement'. If these are done, such errors can be minimised.

  4. Wonderful analysis and very relevant example in day-to-day life..if only we could reason out why the other person is doing what he is doing,rather than outrightly playing the blame game...the world would be a much better place!!

  5. Nice to see a note that takes a concept / term which sounds like a lot of high quality nonsense and illustrate it in a way that there is finally meaning derived and understood.

    Have enjoyed 'FAE' in its 'page 3 / all sound and no fury' avatar in the past and welcome it in it's new 'deep and evolved' avatar.

  6. @Boundlessdreamz : Thanks! More the experience, more the fundaes!!! :)

    @ Kavi : Trust me... it really works!!!

    @NSIyer : Sir, that'll be our topic in our next meet, over lunch!

    @Sara : True! But, all this reasoning comes when one is calm enough to reason out. In heated moments, when you need reasoning the most, it becomes completely elusive!

    @Atul : I know exactly what you mean! ;)

  7. Good one gurl ! Has FAE struck anytime again ?