During any moment in time our brain is taking in hundreds of different stimuli. If we were to actively focus on each of these, we would be in sensory overload and would probably go a little (or a lot) crazy. For this reason our brain selectively perceives information. We take in only a few stimuli at a time and focus on what we deem to be the most important. Once we have selected a specific stimuli to focus on, our brain must then interpret the meaning of this information. From this interpretation we can make assumptions and judgements about the stimuli or situation we are perceiving.
In some cases this can lead to our brain making what is called a fundamental attribution error—a theory I will be discussing further. I examined an instance of this theory in a conversation between two coworkers. One day at work I listened to a conversation between my boss, to be called Kevin, and one of my coworkers, to be called Amy. This conversation happened the day after a much anticipated home football game in my town. Amy had failed to show up for work the day of the game, saying she had fallen ill.
Upon disclosing this to Kevin, my boss told Amy she was most likely making up the story and that she was probably not sick and had actually gone to the game instead of coming to work. In this scenario, I believe that my boss, Kevin, is making a fundamental attribution error. In the book Interpersonal Communication Everyday Encounters, the author, Wood, says that one part of the fundamental attribution error is when we “tend to overestimate the internal causes of others’ undesirable behaviors and underestimate the external causes” (Wood, 2014, pg. 3).
This is saying that if someone performs a behavior that we deem ‘undesirable,’ we attribute the cause of this behavior to their personal traits and characteristics rather than possible outside causes. In this particular conversation, when Kevin tells Amy that he does not believe that she was sick and could not come to work, he is implying that he believes Amy is a lying person. He is attributing her absence from work to an internal cause. He does not believe that being sick, an external cause, caused Amy to be absent from work.
Kevin is overestimating the assumption that Amy’s undesirable behavior is caused by her innate nature, rather than a force she cannot control. The day of the big football game, the store in which I work was very busy. The store was also understaffed due to many other coworkers taking the day off to go to the game. When Amy did not show up for work that day, the number of staff members working dwindled further. The low number of staff added to the high volume of customers likely put high strain on the staff members actually working. If Kevin was working the day of the game, he most likely did not appreciate being one staff member short.
This could certainly have caused some preconceived agitation on his part upon seeing Amy the next day. When Amy came into work the next day, Kevin was likely still tense from being understaffed the previous day and could have transferred some of this anger onto Amy and the situation at hand. The irritation felt by Kevin could cause him to perceive Amy and her situation in a more negative way than he might have on any other day. This negative perception could be part of Kevin’s motivation to assume the worst about Amy—to assume that she is a lying person. This also could have caused Kevin to make a fundamental attribution error.
The context of this situation, the fact that Amy being gone caused additional stress on the employees working could also cause Kevin to assume that Amy doesn’t care about her effects on others and that she only cares about her personal gains. Perhaps, on another day Kevin would not make such negative assumptions about Amy, but due to his agitate state of mind, his perceptions and therefore his attributions about Amy are effected. This example tells us that fundamental attribution errors can be made by anyone. We all make hundreds of assumptions about people, products and situations every day.
Kevin did not make this attribution error because he, himself, is a bad person. He most likely did not consciously set out to frame Amy as a self-centered person. Kevin’s brain perceived the situation in this particular way in order to protect itself. Kevin needed someone to blame for his agitated state. It is difficult for us, as humans, to not have any accountability because we strive for control in all things we do. If we do not account for a source for our problems, we feel like we have lost our sense of control in the situation which could causes us mental distress. Again, we are all capable of making misassumptions and wrong judgements.
What many do not think about, though, is the outcome of their misassumptions. After Kevin told Amy that he did not believe her story Amy proceeded to chuckle, roll her eyes and then walk away from the conversation. I believe Amy perceived that Kevin was only joking with her, and did not actually believe she had lied about skipping out on work. While Kevin is the type of person to make jokes around the workplace, I was not entirely sure he was joking at this particular moment. Typically, when you tell someone you think they are a lying and that you don’t trust them, that person might try to defend themselves.
In another situation, I bet Amy would have tried to convince Kevin that she was indeed, sick the previous day and did not go to the game. Amy probably also would have felt bad about Kevin’s distress over the situation. In a different situation yet, Amy could have gotten defensive with Kevin. Perhaps she even would have yelled at him, telling him that he had no right to blame her for his distress. Most often, fundamental attribution errors cause negative feedback in communication. Attributing someone’s mistakes to their personal characteristics is not very empathetic to do.
It also makes communication very one-sided. Instead taking time to share in another person’s point view, we make quick judgements in order to save ourselves the mental work. The reason our brain takes any mental shortcuts is to decrease the amount of stress on our brain. This was also a handy tool in more ancient times when we had to make split second judgements about stimuli in order to physically protect ourselves. Now-a-days this tool may save us time, but ultimately it causes more friction in communication and relationships than it does any good.
Simply put, fundamental attribution error tell us that sometimes we like to assume the worst about other people. We would rather assume that everyone else’s mistakes are due to their character or personal attributes. But, on the flip side, any mistake we make, ourselves, can be blamed on external factors, taking the blame off of ourselves and onto someone or something else. We, as humans, feel a compulsive need to place blame and to hold someone/something accountable. This is due to our need to feel in control of all situations. Back to the workplace example, Kevin felt out of control the day of the game.
He couldn’t stop Amy from not coming into work and he couldn’t stop how busy the store was that day. He also couldn’t control his temperament that day, either. He felt such great stress and agitation that in order to take control of the situation he felt the need to blame someone for how his day had gone. In turn, Amy received most of Kevin’s anger. Under this heavily influenced negative perception of Amy, Kevin made assumptions that Amy’s actions were due to her innate personal characteristics and not an external condition, like she argued.
From this analysis we can take away that while we, as humans, may have a predisposition to unfairly assume qualities about others, we may be more likely to do so under the influence of negative emotions. This example of communication also shows that fundamental attribution errors are not made consciously. In an instant our brain makes these harsh, out-of-date judgements in order protect our self-esteem and give us a sense of control in completely out of control situations.