Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fundamental Attribution Error

I'm studying for the EPPP (Examination for the Practice of Professional Psychology--the national license exam). As I've been studying, I've been reminded of several concepts that are appropriate for this blog.

One such concept is the fundamental attribution error. This concept states that we often blame a person for problems instead of the environment, often saying the person is bad, sinful, etc.. I'm sure we can all think of examples, but here's a couple of examples I thought of:
The girl who got raped deserved it or was asking for it.
The homeless man is just lazy and evil.

There are clearly times when a person is responsible for their situation, but sometimes they're not. We have to remember that we live in fallen world, which is leads to a lot of problems for all of us that may not be due to any one individual's sin. We should remember this common error that most Americans usually make before we use guilt unfairly. And different cultures and traditions may also lead to greater or lesser use of this error.

Have you seen this error at work in your life?


  1. I am living in Toronto, Canada and awhile ago a man who used to work on constuction projects was hit by a car as he crossed the road after work.

    He was unable to return to his job due to permenant damage to his legs that had been broken and eventually he became a "street person" for a few complicated reasons as you will read.

    Due to the accident and a long wait for compensation he lost his apartment. He had no family in Toronto and no friends to help. He walks with a limp now and for awhile sold community newspapers while staying in shelters.

    The fellow is a Native Indian and sadly, when my daughter had let this man stand outside the shop my daughter owns. a few people, including a police officer, asked her if the man ever bothered her. One or two thought he was drunk due to his unsteady gait.

    I have met the man and we talked inside the shop as it was cold and a chance for us both to warm up. He is a kind-hearted man.

    Sadly, Native Indians are automatically assumed to be trouble. And an unsteady gait brings the assumption they are drunk. I have an unsteady gait due to MS but people look at me kindly and offer help when I need it at a curb or crossing roads. But I am of Nordic heritage rather than looking like a Native Indian!

    The good ending I can ofer is the man received a settlement from the courts for the car that hit him and he now has an apartment again. My daughter and her husband have helped the fellow organize the apartment and I think will mainain a friendship.

    So, that is my story of what I understand is a fundamental attribution error.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jan-Michael! Your story clearly describes how we misattribute negative conditions to certain racial or cultural groups. I think another area where the fundamental attribution error could arise is that people likely assume he's homeless because of something problematic in his character (i.e. he's lazy and a bad guy) versus the truth (he was struck with a series of unfortunate circumstances that were beyond his control and had nothing to do with anything he did or did not do). By assuming his homelessness is his fault, it's easier to turn a blind eye to him and not help out. When, in fact, he truly needs a lot of help!



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