Overcoming Attribution Error

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One game that we’re constantly playing is the blame game. Whether you admit it to yourself or not, if someone doesn’t live up to your expectations, you instinctively blame them for the outcome. It’s the easiest thing to do and involves little to no consideration of circumstances.

All humans are fallible and should be held accountable when they’re involved. But in reality, naming them the core reason for the outcome is giving them too much credit or control of the situation. Believing that they are in control stems from the fact that you think you have full control of outcomes in life, but we all know (or we should all know) that we don’t.

When we blame people or think they’re the reason for why things are as they are without considering situational factors, we are succumbing to the fundamental attribution error (FAE for short). This error is prevalent in both our professional and personal lives, from building a healthy relationship with your partner to being a good colleague. We commit FAE by falsely attributing the outcome of a situation with someone’s character, and then blanketing the person with judgment without sincerely considering all the forces at play.

The paradox here is that when something doesn’t go our way, we don’t necessarily blame ourselves or apply general character judgments. Instead, we tend to seek external reasons for our shortcomings. The reason we do this is manifold, but we’re primarily trying to protect ourselves and manage our perceived self-image.

To clarify this even further, see how this unravels in some basic situations:

  • Example 1: Getting cut off in traffic
  • Someone cuts you off in traffic and you immediately think the culprit is an inconsiderate arsehole.
  • You cut off someone in traffic and rationalize it by saying “I need to be on time for work.”
  • Ex 2: Making a mistake at work
  • Your colleague doesn’t create the right report, you automatically think that the person is incompetent and should be fired.
  • You forget to include the report in an email, you blame it on the fact that you’re under too much stress at the moment.

Knowing that you are friendlier to yourself than others is useful knowledge, but using that awareness to change your behavior is the key to making better decisions as time goes on.

How to Put FAE to Use

Being able to include contributing factors into the assessment of the person’s decision, whether it impacts you or not, will help you help them. More precisely, you can iterate and make more realistic predictions about outcomes. To use FAE to your advantage, consider the following steps:

Analyzing The Decision

  • For every decision, there is always more than a person’s thought process that impacted the outcome. From artificial limits on time to various implicit obstacles, the decision/outcome can be made with incomplete information or be rushed. There are unforeseen issues and some that were known but never made explicit, including these when reviewing the decision will allow you to calibrate expectations to be more realistic in the future.

The Right Attributes

  • After you go through the analysis process, consider the attributes that affected the outcome. Grade your attributes and measure them by how much impact they had on the situation.

De-Risking Based on Situation

  • Once all your attributes are enumerated, outlined, and prioritized, you’ll realize there are some factors you can solve and some that you can’t. With this in mind, you can better align reality with expectations and get to an outcome that has a higher likelihood of occurring.

Process in Action

  • Let’s take this process for through a work example;
  • Situation: Roger asks his supervisee, Monica, to deliver specs for a new software feature by the end of the month. When the deadline arrives, Monica only delivers a partial spec.
  • FAE: Roger thinks that Monica has poor time management skills and is incompetent at her job.
  • Additional Attributes: The company is going through an organizational change, and therefore, the team Monica was working with has lost three members in the past month.
  • Analysis: Roger, being well-informed of the changes happening at the company, should consider how they factor into Monica’s work.
  • De-risking: The next time Roger assigns another project, he will think through what capacity the team might have and thus set different expectations rather than blaming the outcomes on the character of his supervisee.


When we begin to include other attributes to the outcome, we see the forest for the trees and can reassess the outcome to plan better for the future. So, stop thinking about the people involved, and think more holistically about the situation. By being less critical of the person and more critical of the situation, you’ll be able to see which factors made the impact.

Product & Real Estate. Trying to improve my decision-making by helping you improve yours.