The ‘fundamental attribution error’ gets us in trouble constantly. We trust people we ought not to – we avoid people who really are perfectly nice – we hire people who are not all that competent – all because we fail to recognise situational forces that may be operating on the person’s behaviour. We consequently assume that future behaviour will reflect the dispositions we infer from present behaviour. (It’s past behaviour over the long run – observed in many diverse situations – that is the excellent predictor – not behaviour observed in only a few situations – especially a few situations all of the same type.)
A few years ago a graduate student who was working with me told me something about himself that I would never have guessed. He had done prison time for murder. He hadn’t pulled the trigger but he had been present when an acquaintance committed the murder and he was convicted of being an accessory to the crime.
There are obvious self-serving motives behind such attributions. But it’s important to know that people generally think that their own behaviour is largely a matter of responding sensibly to the situation they happen to be in – whether that behaviour is admirable or abominable.
We’re much less likely to recognise the situational factors other people are responding to – and we’re consequently much more likely to commit the fundamental attribution error when judging them – seeing dispositional factors as the main or sole explanation for the behaviour.
– but the media has done a terrific job of depicting the problem exclusively in terms of loss.