The fundamental attribution error is so central to learning sociology that it astonishes me that I’ve never seen it covered in a Soc 101 text*. The fundamental attribution error is the idea that each of us as an individual is biased toward viewing our behaviors within the context of our circumstances. However, when we view the behaviors of others we attribute their behaviors to who they are as a person or to their character. The classic example is speeding.
To begin a class discussion on the fundamental attribution error I ask my students to think about the last time they broke the speed limit. Not like 5 miles an hour over, but like really really broke the speed limit. After a moment I ask, “So why were you speeding?” Students describe how they typically don’t recklessly speed unless there is some dire need to get somewhere fast. Students talk about being fired if they are late to work one more time, sleeping through an alarm and being late to a final or midterm, or speeding to catch a flight. Many times students start their explanations by saying, “I typically don’t speed, but…” When asked why they speed students provide a litany of circumstantial reasons for their “unusual” behavior.
I then ask students to think about the last time they were driving and someone blew by them or was weaving through traffic recklessly. After they collect this memory, I ask them how they feel about the speeding driver. “I typically yell, ‘you ___ hole!'” one of my students said this semester. Students go on to describe how they feel the reckless driver is a danger to society and they need to be stopped. Student describe speeders as fundamentally different people from them. They have a character flaw that makes them speed. There is almost always no discussion of how the other speeders may be experiencing circumstances similar to the times that students recalled speeding. Basically what pans out every time I have this discussion is that, students speed because of unique circumstances, but others speed because of who they are.
We can see the fundamental attribution error all over the place in sociology. It’s present in almost every stereotype. We see it in the criminal justice system. But where I experience the fundamental attribution error the most is in discussions of inequality. Students can go on and on about how they’re loved ones work extremely hard and still can’t get themselves out of poverty, but they also go on and on about how they know so many poor people who, unlike their loved ones, are lazy and unwilling to even try to live independent of government aid. I frequently hear a statement like this, “It makes me so mad to see all these people who live off of welfare whining about being broke when they aren’t even looking for work or trying to be independent. When my family was on welfare we used it because we had to and as soon as we could get off of it we did.” Statements like this show how students place their families use of welfare within the context of their circumstances, but they refuse to extend the same to other families on welfare. The character of these other families are fundamentally different from theirs. When we talk about empirical research that shows that the majority of welfare recipients only receive aid for a short period of time and then leave the programs as soon as they can, students seem perplexed. They tell me stories of people they saw picking up welfare checks in Cadelac Escalades. They tell me that despite my empirical evidence to the contrary, most people “abuse welfare” and their family was one of the rare exceptions. Knowing that this discussion is almost certainly coming, I start the semester with a discussion of the fundamental attribution error and I’ve found that students are increasingly willing to accept the empirical evidence.
Discussions of authority and obedience are another area ripe for the fundamental attribution error. In my class we watch a clip about the Stanford Prison experiment, read about Millgram’s electrocution experiments, and the like. Students learn about all these examples of obedience with disbelief. Students almost always say something like, “Well all this research shows is there are some gullible and obedient people out there.” Here again is the fundamental attribution error. My students believe that these “obedient people” are fundamentally different than they are. A quick way to neutralize this self-serving logic is to ask the class, “how many of you think this is true? Show of hands who thinks that ‘people are gullible and obedient’?” Almost every hand in the class goes up. “Okay, now how many of you think you are gullible and obedient?” Not a single hand goes up. “Oh, so this is something ‘people do’ but none of you do it. Huh, that’s strange.” This is a great launching point for a discussion of the fundamental attribution error.
*The fundamental attribution error comes from social psychology (as far as I know). So it kinda makes sense that it’s not featured in a 101 text.