There’s been a lot written about cognitive biases in the last decade. If you walk into the Psychology section of Barnes of Noble today or browse Amazon for “decision-making,” you’re sure to see a library of books on how irrational humans can be.

In my last two posts, I spoke about two of the most pernicious biases affecting businesses today—confirmation bias and over-confidence. But the most important, and troubling, error we make in our thinking just may be the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

What’s the fundamental attribution error?

The FAE is our tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character, while attributing our own behavior to external situational factors. If you’ve ever chastised a “lazy employee” for being late to a meeting and then proceeded to make an excuse for being late yourself later that same day, you’ve made the FAE. It’s our tendency to cut ourselves a break while holding others 100% accountable for their actions.

But don’t feel too bad—the FAE is perfectly human. And similar to confirmation and overconfidence biases, its impact can be reduced by taking a number of measures.

FAE exists because of the way in which we perceive the world. While we have at least some idea of our own character, motivations, and the situational factors affecting us day-to-day, we rarely know all of the things going on with someone else.

In working with our colleagues, for example, we form a general impression of their character based on pieces of situations, but never see the whole picture. While it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, our brains use limited information to make judgments. And thus we only have their perceived character available to us to chastise them for being tardy to the big corporate strategy review.

Within organizations, FAE causes everything from arguments to firings and ruptures in organizational culture. In fact, it’s at the root of any misunderstanding in which human motivations have the potential to be misinterpreted.

Think of the last time you thought a coworker should be fired or the last time a customer service representative was incompetent. How often have you really tried to understand the situational factors that could be affecting this person’s work? Probably not much.

FAE is so prevalent because it’s rooted in psychology, so completely overcoming it is impossible. However, one tool that I’ve found helpful in combating FAE is gratitude. When you become resentful at someone for a bad “quality” they demonstrate, try to make a list of five positive qualities the person also has—this will help balance out your perspective. 

Another method is to practice becoming more emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence has become a buzzword in the business world over the past 20 to 30 years, but all it involves is practicing self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation and other methods of becoming more objective in the service of one’s long-term interests and the interests of others. Practicing empathy, in particular, such as having discussions with coworkers about their opinions on projects and life out of the office, is a good first step.

FAE is impossible to overcome completely. But with a combination of awareness and a few small tools and tactics, you can be more gracious and empathic with your coworkers.


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Patrick Healy

About the Author

Pat is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and currently works on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program. He is also currently working to design courses in Management and Negotiations for the HBX platform. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.