by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Man in sunglasses pointing finger
The traffic light turns amber but instead of slowing down, a car speeds past it. Your mind immediately goes: “What a reckless driver!”

Why do we jump to a conclusion so easily?

We tend to think the way we do because, like it or not, we all wear tinted glasses. Social psychologists call these glasses, cognitive bias. In this case, the specific brand of cognitive bias is fundamental attribution error.

Fundamental attribution error happens when we attribute other people’s behaviour to their personal characteristics rather than to external circumstances. For example, we think that the speeding driver must be reckless (personal characteristic), instead of the possibility that he could be rushing an accident victim to the hospital (external circumstances).

How might fundamental attribution error affect you in the corporation?

Imagine this scenario: Both job applicants A and B are impressive. They are sharp, articulate and well-groomed. However, A has a higher grade point (GPA) average than B. The hiring manager automatically thinks: “I’ll hire A.”

Do you notice any shortcoming with the hiring manager’s thinking?

The hiring manager thought that the higher GPA was due to applicant A’s superior abilities over B’s (personal characteristic) rather than because A had graduated from a university that offered an easier curriculum, or because B had completed a much tougher programme at a more prestigious university (external circumstances).

Assessing an applicant’s past performance without considering the level of job difficulty is one of the pitfalls that can prevent organizations from hiring the right or the best talent. Besides missing out on true top talent, you could be stuck with poor candidates who cost your organization unnecessary loss of time, productivity and finances.

If we are already aware about fundamental attribution error, then why do we still commit such an error? There are two possible reasons. Firstly, we sometimes have no choice but to make quick assessments in order to survive in a fast-paced environment. So, we rely on clues that we can immediately sense, such as the other person’s mood, mannerisms and physical appearance. We might end up getting it wrong at times, but various situations require us to make an educated guess.

Secondly, our human nature of self-preservation causes us to instinctively blame others rather than ourselves whenever we are involved in a disagreement or conflict. This is an in-built mechanism to protect ourselves from being taken advantage of, but we must not overdo it to the extent that we ourselves are the ones taking advantage of others.

Do the professionals fare better?

Aren’t corporate leaders and HR professionals able to discern situational factors and assess people more objectively? Unfortunately, research results indicate otherwise.

A recently published research paper titled, “Inflated Applicants: Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation by Professionals” by Samuel A. Swift, Don A. Moore, Zachariah S. Sharek and Francesca Gino1, reveals that fundamental attribution error is so entrenched in our decision making that even highly trained professionals such as hiring managers and school admissions officers are not spared from falling prey to it.

In the study by Swift, Moore, Sharek and Gino, 23 professional admissions officers were asked to review 9 candidates for MBA admission, who had graduated from 9 different schools that were equivalent in terms of quality and selectivity. The only difference in the schools was that some were “lenient” in terms of task difficulty, while the others were “harsh”. The outcome demonstrated that the admissions officers, including the seasoned ones, were biased towards candidates who performed better in easier tasks over those who performed less well in difficult tasks, despite being informed about each school’s task difficulty.

Doing a similar study, the researchers roped in 129 business executives to evaluate 12 candidates for job promotion. Once again, the results showed that candidates who performed well in easier tasks had a higher selection rate than candidates who performed less well in harder tasks.

In both the aforementioned cases, decision makers underestimated or overlooked the external factors that influenced candidates’ performance. If decision makers with substantial exposure and experience could inadvertently commit fundamental attribution error, then how much more careful would the rest of us have to be when sourcing for talent!

Minimizing fundamental attribution error

Now that we have a better understanding of fundamental attribution error, can we make a positive change in our daily conduct?

Broken sunglassesYes, we can! On an interpersonal level, we can start by giving others the benefit of the doubt, in the same way we want others to do for us. The funny thing is that, if we ourselves commit something questionable, we know how to adeptly justify our own behaviour by pointing a finger to external circumstances instead of at ourselves. For example, if we had hired the wrong financial advisor without doing a background check, we would be quick to trumpet the candidate’s deceit rather than our own negligence in due diligence.

On an organizational level, the management could assess employees’ dispositional ability by taking into consideration Kurt Lewin’s attributional equation2:

Behaviour = f(Disposition, Situation)

Lewin’s attributional equation depicts that behaviour is a function of not only the person’s disposition (personal characteristics) but also of the situation (external circumstances). Understanding this will help us be more mature, accommodating and approachable leaders while endearing us to our peers and followers. So, shed your tinted glasses today for clearer leadership vision!


1. (full study published here)

2. Lewin, K. (1931). The conflict between Aristotelian and Galilean modes of thought in contemporary psychology. Journal of General Psychology 5: 141–177. doi: 10.1080/00221309.1931.9918387.

3. For a good explanation of fundamental attribution error, you may like to read this:

[Image 1 courtesy of  Stockimages; Image 2 courtesy of Thanunkorn]