Context-Personality Misconstrual: The “Fundamental Attribution Error”

The natural tendency of the brain to short-cut leaves us susceptible to misconstruals. Our mnemonics and categorizations are part of our survival strategy, but in our new, modern world can lead us astray without us knowing so. One common result is the neglect of circumstance in cause-effect determinations. Here lies the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE):

We are vulnerable to making a hasty judgment of someone‘s behavior and assuming the cause is due to the person’s personality. We can tend to neglect the external context of a person, often perceiving his or her behavior as some certain fact of personality. A primal factor that influences a perceiver’s attribution of behavior is their idea of agency and why things happen; such as a need to know what others will do and why they do it. Usually FAE is routed from a bias such as how one believes the world should be or how to rationalize people’s place or status in society. People would like to see that negative occurrences stem from a person’s personal qualities rather than an unfortunate – and possibly unfair – situation. So, FAE is innate to our cognition and it’s capacity for attention and analysis; and so a misconstrual innate to our conscious effort and allocation of empirical thought.

People get distracted when observing a person’s behavior, focusing most of their attention on the person and not nearly enough on surrounding information that would infer situation-based behavior more than personal-based behavior. This automatic response to observing behavior can be made more accurate to truth if the observer spends more time and effort to make a controlled decision. Then, the behavior may be assessed in terms of situation and less so by speculation of personality. Personal agency is subjective and confounding but at least circumstance is more objectifiable and attainable.

With all this, we can learn a lot about dispositional versus situational characteristics of human behavior. When making judgments about others, an observer must take into account the context of the person’s behavior. Personality does affect behavior, but one’s social environment can shape and mold a person’s thoughts, conduct, and decisions profoundly. Active awareness of the fundamental attribution error can be useful for students and others; it can provide a new, more realistic view of human cause and effect. Sure, individuals have their dispositions, but more often than not external factors cause specific behavior more than internal factors.

As social animals, we are sensitive to sociocultural conditions and circumstances. As sentient animals we are dynamically responsive. We reflect these qualities in our behavior and so we should account for these qualities in our judgments of behavior.


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