5 Fundamental Attribution Error Examples (Tips to Avoid It)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The fundamental attribution error is when an individual makes an incorrect assumption about someone's actions based on an assumed character trait or personality attribute. It's a common mistake that may be present in professional environments, such as a manager assuming why a team member isn't performing. Understanding the causes of fundamental attribution error can help you avoid this assumption mistake when operating in team environments. In this article, we define fundamental attribution error, list some examples and share some tips on how to avoid it.

What's the fundamental attribution error?

Fundamental attribution error is a thought process where you assume the reason for someone's behaviour is their personality or character qualities. For example, if someone isn't performing well, you might assume it's because they're lazy. The real reason for their underperformance, though, might be because of emotional distress caused by a personal event. Assumptions like these are best to avoid, as they usually lead to an unhealthy work environment. While these assumptions can be common in the workplace, there are simple steps you can follow to help you avoid them.

Related: Personal Attributes: Definition, Examples and Key Tips

Fundamental attribution error examples

Below, you can explore some fundamental attribution error examples:

1. Workplace interactions

The workplace often involves many interactions, where people assume a range of reasons for their colleagues' behaviours. These assumptions can be detrimental to the working environment, as incorrect assumptions can alter people's perceptions of others. Avoiding these assumptions in the workplace can ensure cohesiveness and healthy relationships between employees.

Example: Sandra is an accounts administrator who has lately been arriving five minutes late to work for the past several weeks. Emelia is one of their colleagues and assumes the reason for the late arrivals is that Sandra has poor time-management skills. During several conversations, Emelia expresses an opinion about Sandra, which influences the team's perception of them. Several weeks later, Emelia talks with Sandra and discovers they've had a strict treatment plan that requires Sandra to visit a medical clinic each morning, explaining their late arrivals. Emelia identifies the FAE and apologises for their assumption.

Related: How to Handle Interpersonal Conflict at Work (With Examples)

2. Teacher and student interaction

When a student lacks focus or is struggling to pass their subjects, teachers may assume it's because they don't understand the course content. They might also assume it's because the student doesn't complete their homework or doesn't care about their education. Avoiding these assumptions can be crucial in an educational environment because when teachers discover the real reason for underperformance, they can identify and provide the correct support to help the student.

Example: Mathew is an economics teacher who teaches Year 11 students. Tim is one of their students who appears to be struggling with course content. By observing Tim, Mathew realises they rarely focus during class. Mathew assumes Tim doesn't care about economics and lacks commitment to their education. Mathew notifies the other teachers, who agree that Tim can benefit from a session with the school counsellor. After the counselling session, the teaching staff discover Tim is experiencing family issues and feels distracted. Mathew realises they made an incorrect assumption and begins discovering ways of mentally supporting Tim.

Related: Emotional Intelligence In Leadership and Why It's Important

3. Job interview interaction

Fundamental attribution errors are often present in job interviews. These errors are best to avoid, as they can influence a recruiter's perception of a candidate. The recruiter's perception of a candidate is essentially how a recruiter deems the candidate's suitability for the vacant role. If a recruiter avoids incorrect assumptions, they can fairly and accurately assess the candidate's potential.

Example: Cheryl is an interviewer for a finance firm. They had a recent interview with Nicky, a candidate for an accounts administration position. During the interview, Nicky asked several times if Cheryl can repeat their question. Cheryl assumed Nicky was unprofessional and lacked the focus and attention to remember simple questions. Two weeks later, Nicky contacted the firm's human resource department to discuss their recruitment status. Nicky explained they received unsettling news moments before the interview that distracted them. Cheryl realises they made an incorrect assumption about Nicky's professionalism and offers a repeat interview.

Related: Preparing for an Interview: How to Do It and Why It Matters

4. Performance evaluation interaction

Similar to a job interview, a fundamental attribution error can influence a manager's perception of an employee's performance. Avoiding these assumptions during performance evaluations is important because a performance interview is a factual evaluation of an employee's performance. An incorrect assumption essentially makes the evaluation inaccurate.

Example: Martha is a safety manager at a mining camp. The mining company provides safety guidelines for leaving unattended vehicles. Martha discovers one vehicle has the keys in the ignition. They identify who was responsible and realise they continually make this mistake. During a performance interview, Martha records that the employee lacks safety awareness and respect for company property. The employee later discusses the performance review and explains one of the site supervisors continually tells them to leave the keys in the ignition. Martha realises they made a fundamental attribution error by assuming the employee lacks safety awareness.

Related: What Is a Performance Review and Why Does It Matter?

5. Training and development interaction

During training and development programs, there may be group activities, such as shared assignments or practical tests. If someone makes a fundamental attribution error, the group might not perform well. Avoiding fundamental attribution errors in group learning environments can ensure cohesion, collaboration and teamwork.

Example: Antony and Michael are two colleagues conducting a training and development program during employment hours. Throughout the program, Michael feels that they're contributing more to the program than Antony. Michael feels frustrated and assumes Antony is using the training program as an excuse to not work rather than develop themselves. Several weeks after the training program, Michael discovers an external event was troubling Antony and preventing them from focusing on the learning material. Michael realises he made an incorrect assumption about Antony's personality.

Related: Top 10 Tips on How to Work Collaboratively In the Workplace

Tips for avoiding the fundamental attribution error

Below, you can consider several tips to help you avoid making a fundamental attribution error:

Practise empathy

There are many skills you can develop, such as communication and empathy, that can help you understand other people's emotions and feelings. By practising your empathy skills, you can learn to identify people's emotions, which can help you consider other perceptions. For example, through your empathy skills, you might notice a colleague is acting differently, allowing you to assess the person's behaviour without making assumptions. There are different ways to practise your empathy, such as listening carefully to others and withholding judgement.

Related: What Are Empathic Skills? (With Benefits and Steps)

Improve your relationships with others

If you form strong relationships with others, you can usually gain an excellent understanding of their character and personality, helping you avoid attribution errors. For example, you might form a strong relationship with someone and discover they're kind, patient and respectful. If you notice a change in their personality, you may determine it's from situational factors rather than their internal attributes. This is because you have a strong relationship with them and understand their normal behaviour.

Related: How to Build Good Workplace Relationships In 8 Steps

Reflect on your perceptions and feelings

As a way of improving your empathetic understanding of others and avoiding fundamental attribution errors, you can reflect on your own perceptions and feelings. This can usually help you develop more awareness of how you think and process information, which can be important to understand when making assumptions. If you continually reflect on your perceptions and feelings, you can apply your understanding of your own behaviour to another person's actions. For example, if you identify what makes you quiet and reserved, you may determine when someone else is feeling the same.

Related: Examples of Self-Awareness In the Workplace (With Benefits)

Use a divergent thought process

Divergent thinking is typically a thought process that focuses on considering a variety of options and using deductive techniques to determine the most logical solutions. Using this thought process can be an excellent method for expanding your perspective on why a person is behaving a particular way. For example, if someone seems distracted and unfocused, you may consider a number of reasons which usually prevent you from making assumptions. This is because you recognise the possibility of multiple explanations for their behaviour.

Related: What Is Divergent Thinking? (And How to Develop This Skill)

Improve your social awareness

Your social awareness skills can help you identify abnormal behaviour in your colleagues and friends. If you're socially aware, you can usually identify body language and social cues that suggest someone is experiencing negativity from external factors. You can usually develop your social awareness by observing body language and listening to others carefully.

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