A tendency to over-emphasize dispositional based explanations

A common theme among people who have lost their spouse is the debilitating effects of feeling entirely alone and incomplete. The sense of feeling like you have lost an essential part of yourself is both painful and disconcerting. The world suddenly looks like a different place, often odd and distanced.

Shock, numbness, denial, anger, sadness, and despair are the feelings most people cycle through after the loss of a loved one. These emotions can persist in varying degrees for many months afterward. Most people experience these feelings in stages that occur in no particular order but diminish in intensity over time.

The fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people.

Example: Maria’s car breaks down on the freeway. If she believes the breakdown happened because of her ignorance about cars, she is making an internal attribution. If she believes that the breakdown happened because her car is old, she is making an external attribution.

Solution Put Simply

A no-blame culture accepts things go wrong in life and in the workplace.


Think of the last time you thought a co-worker should be fired or 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 often.

The fundamental attribution error is so prevalent because it’s rooted in psychology, so completely overcoming it can be difficult. One tool that can help combat FAE is gratitude. When you become resentful at someone for a bad “quality” they demonstrate, try to list five positive qualities the person also exhibits. This will help balance out your perspective and can help you view your co-worker as a whole person instead of through the lens of a single negative quality.

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. Still, it involves practicing self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, and other methods of becoming more objective in serving one’s long-term interests and the interests of others. Practicing empathy, in particular, such as having discussions with co-workers about their opinions on projects and life outside 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 co-workers. In fact, being able to acknowledge cognitive biases like FAE and make the conscious effort to limit their effects is an essential component of becoming a better manager.