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Why You Judge Others But Excuse Yourself: The Psychology of Fundamental Attribution Error

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Have you ever watched someone do something and immediately formed an opinion about their character? Maybe you've seen a person cut in line or heard someone speak rudely to a waiter and thought to yourself, "What a rude person." This is an example of the fundamental attribution error, a common cognitive bias that affects how we perceive and judge other people's behaviour.

What is Fundamental Attribution Error?

Fundamental attribution error (FAE) refers to the tendency to overemphasize internal factors, such as personality traits, when explaining someone else's behaviour, while ignoring external factors, such as the situation or circumstances. Put simply, it's the tendency to judge others on their character, but yourself on the situation.

For instance, when you're late for a meeting, you may attribute it to external factors such as traffic, an unexpected phone call, or an accident. However, when someone else is late, you may assume that it's because they're lazy, disorganized, or don't respect your time.

Why Does Fundamental Attribution Error Occur?

The fundamental attribution error occurs because it's easier to make judgments based on what we see, rather than what we don't see. We don't have access to other people's thoughts, feelings, and circumstances, so we tend to rely on our own experiences and beliefs to make judgments about them. This can lead to inaccurate conclusions and unfair judgments.

Another reason why FAE occurs is that we tend to overemphasize the role of personality traits and underestimate the role of situational factors. We often assume that people's behaviour is a reflection of their personality, rather than their circumstances. This is particularly true when the behaviour is negative or unexpected.

Examples of Fundamental Attribution Error

Here are a few examples of how FAE can play out in real-life situations:

  1. A driver cuts you off on the highway. You assume that the driver is a reckless, aggressive person, rather than considering the possibility that they may be late for an important appointment or have an emergency.

  2. A colleague misses a deadline. You assume that the colleague is lazy, incompetent, or doesn't care about their work, rather than considering the possibility that they may be overloaded with work or facing personal issues.

  3. A student performs poorly on a test. You assume that the student is unintelligent or didn't study enough, rather than considering the possibility that they may have been sick, anxious, or dealing with personal issues.

How to Avoid Fundamental Attribution Error

To avoid making unfair judgments and inaccurate conclusions, it's important to recognize the fundamental attribution error and actively work to counteract it. Here are a few strategies that can help:

  1. Consider the situation: When judging someone's behavior, try to consider the situation and external factors that may have influenced their behavior. Ask yourself, "What else could have caused this behavior?"

  2. Avoid snap judgments: Avoid making quick judgments about someone's character based on one behavior or incident. Try to gather more information and observe their behavior over time.

  3. Practice empathy: Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes and imagine how you would feel if you were in their situation. This can help you understand their behavior and avoid making unfair judgments.

  4. Be aware of your own biases: Recognize your own biases and try to overcome them. For example, if you tend to be judgmental, try to approach situations with an open mind and consider different perspectives.


The fundamental attribution error is a common cognitive bias that affects how we perceive and judge other people's behaviour. By recognizing this bias and actively working to counteract it, we can avoid

Do you want to become a better communicator and avoid misjudging others due to cognitive biases like fundamental attribution error? Our course, Seeing Clearly: Overcoming Your Brain's Betrayal, can help you do just that. Enroll now for free and start developing the skills you need to make more accurate judgments and communicate more effectively with others. Don't let cognitive biases hold you back - join our course today!


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