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The fundamental attribution error

Jesse Martin

June 09, 2016

The fundamental attribution error says that when we react to another person's behavior we tend to overestimate that person’s character and we underestimate the situation.

An example might be someone saying “I can’t believe certain nazi generals blindly followed orders to exterminate Jewish prisoners. I would never have done that.“

This person holds their own character to be stronger than that of the perpetrator in the story. He believes that, put in the same situation, they would have acted differently.

Chances are that's not the case.

We fundamentally attribute too much weight to the person's character and not enough weight to the situation.

In other words, although we feel like we wouldn’t have done the same — because we’re underestimating the weight of the situation vs. the person — we probably would have done the same.

The same applies to relationships.

When we’re in love with someone we think it’s mostly due to the other person’s character. We underestimate the contribution attributable to the situation. The situation in this case being the fact you’re with someone — anyone — that loves you back.

The fact of the matter is, it feels incredibly good to be in any relationship where there is mutual affection. But how much of what we’re feeling can we attribute to that person’s character specifically and how much is just due to the fact we find ourselves in a relationship?

This is particularly pertinent question to ask in the case of someone's first love. Because of the situation, someone not having fallen in love before, they feel even more in love with the person than they would have otherwise.

Had they met the same person later on in life, perhaps after cutting their teeth on several relationships, they would not have felt as strongly.

Does this mean that the feeling is not valid or not justified? No. But it does mean that it is not 100% attributable to the subject of your affection. Something we easily lose track of.

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