In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.
How often have you heard someone (yourself?) decrying another's behaviour in terms like these: 'they're greedy', 'stupid', 'selfish', 'just downright bloodyminded...'
Stop. What you are hearing, or saying, is an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is the perfect example of social scientists' ability to come up with a really powerful, useful concept and then disguise it in impenetrable jargon.
The actor-observer effect (Jones & Nisbett, 1972) is an extension of the fundamental attribution error; it adds the premise that individuals attribute their own actions more to situational than to dispositional influences. Evidence from the other contexts (Chen, Yates, & McGinnies, 1988) suggests this tendency might be moderated in conditions that are very salient in commons dilemmas.
In judging the cause of someone's actions, the correspondence bias refers to the common error of overestimating the influence of the person's disposition and underestimating the impact of the situation (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). This tendency is so pervasive that it is also referred to as the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977).
If entrepreneurs were logical, their explanations of their own venture's failure should coincide with their explanations of all other venture failures. However, following attribution theory, they are likely to commit the fundamental attribution error(Fiske and Taylor 1991). So when discussing their own ventures, entrepreneurs will be more likely to name external factors as the cause of the failure.
Yet, the strength of this so-called fundamental attribution error has been challenged by J. M. Burger (1991), who showed that this bias disappeared over time. But does time cause an attribution shift when the other's behavior is negative and hedonically relevant to the observer (e.g., the former is attacked by the latter)? In an exploratory study, the authors showed that even in this case, attributions to dispositional variables tended to diminish over time.
These displays of anger were evaluated based on the extent to which they were aggressive (e.g., Distributive or Passive) or assertive (e.g., Integrative). Consistent with the fundamental attribution error, students assigned internal attributions to teachers who used Distributive Aggression (e.g., yell and scream) and Passive-Aggression (e.g., show anger with cold looks) to a greater extent than teachers who were Assertive (i.e., calmly discuss the problem, with the students).
That is, how stable is the fundamental attribution error over time? The question of temporal effects on attributions is an important one because most of the areas to which attribution theory has been applied (such depression, relationships, and achievement) concern events that take place over what is often a considerable period of time. Beyond this, there are many reasons to suspect that the strength of the fundamental attribution error might change over time.
One of the earliest explanations for why people consistently make this perceptual error is the argument, drawing on principles from Gestalt psychology, that behaviour engulfs the field (Heider, 1958). When we are engaged in interaction with another person it is that person's behaviour which becomes dominant in our perception (the 'figure' is dominant against the situational 'ground'). Accordingly, the observer will underestimate the effect of the situation (or 'ground') because of their focus on the person (or 'figure').
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate the influence of dispositional or internal attributions of a person when explaining or attempting to change behavior, and to underestimate the impact of the actual situation or other environmental factors (Alcock, Garment, & Sadava, 1991; Ross, 1977). Stated another way, the fundamental attribution erroris a person's inflated belief in personal factors when explaining behavior (whether it is one's own behavior or the behavior of others), together with the failure to recognize social and external variables (Ross & Nisbett, 1991).
A classic example of this error was observed by Jones and Harris (1967). They found that young adults made attributions about an actor's attitude based on the content of a class essay written by the actor even when it was clear that the viewpoint expressed in the essay was selected by the instructor and not by the actor. In a subsequent experiment, Jones and Harris found that even having the experimental participants write an assigned (no-choice) essay themselves did not significantly attenuate their trait attributions for others who had performed the same kind of task.