Social Psychology’s Biggest Double Standard: The Fundamental Attribution Error

two people standing in front of an exhibition featuring two large brain sculptures
Image by Radio Saigón / CC BY

“Do unto others twenty-five percent better than you expect them to do unto you…The twenty-five percent is for error.”

-Linus Pauling

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You’re sitting in a class listening to a lecture. It’s a good discussion. You’re fairly engrossed. Time is passing pretty quickly.

All of a sudden, in bursts one of your classmates. They’re red faced, huffing and puffing. They frankly look like Hell.

They sprint down the aisle, find a seat as quickly as they possibly can. Set down their things.

It’s distracting. You think to yourself, Some people are so irresponsible. You figure your classmate doesn’t care about the lesson or the other students. That they planned poorly because they’re just like that.

But your classmate is carrying around a different story with them. They got up and got ready for their day with plenty of time to spare. They left their house at a reasonable time… only to find a huge accident blocking the interstate. The reason they’re late is because they were sitting in their car for nearly a half an hour.

The rest of your class lives on campus or on a side of town that wasn’t affected. So no one else got stuck in this accident. And everyone else is similarly unimpressed with them.

But you’ll never know this since you probably won’t ever talk to that classmate about what happened that day. Instead, you’re more likely to subconsciously remember them as someone who is a little irresponsible. Especially if it happens again, if something throws an unexpected wrench into their commute.

As you go about your day, if you are around enough people, you’re almost guaranteed to do something that someone else perceives negatively. You’ll make some kind of “mistake” yourself. And you’ll know the reasons behind it, why that happened. But they won’t. And they’ll likely think it has something to do with your innate personality — the kind of person you are — rather than something going on in your life.

Giving People the Benefits of a Few Doubts and Identifying Potential Obstacles to Accountability

The fundamental attribution error is one of the most interesting phenomena in social psychology. Essentially, it’s our tendency to explain the actions of other people by their internal characteristics and assume things about their personality based on it, rather than by anything externally or situationally that could be happening to them.

We’re late because we got stuck in traffic. They’re late because they’re irresponsible or don’t care about being on time.

Generally speaking, when it comes to messing up, we’re much harder on other people than we are on ourselves. And we’re more likely to cut ourselves slack than other people. To not fully internalize the blame when it comes to us but exercise a double standard where it’s easy for us to blame others (although it’s worth noting that people with depression tend to lack most forms of positivity bias and instead demonstrate a phenomenon known as depressive realism).

It’s an incredibly common bias.

So what I’ve found helpful is to give people the benefit of a couple of doubts. And when I’m looking for ways to improve accountability in my formal relationships with people (for example, in regards to enforcing a contract or negotiating a relationship agreement),  to not start by assuming the other person has some kind of moral deficiency that’s causing them to act badly. Instead, I try to identify obstacles that might be preventing someone from upholding their part of a bargain.

To be fair, that understanding only extends so far. But far too often, people jump to the wrong conclusions about others because we don’t have all the information and we assume the worst.

For more information on ways to circumvent that cycle, please see my post 9 Steps for Having an Accountability Talk with a Partner When Things Go Wrong, as well as all of the resources that are referred to in that post.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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