Imagine that one day ‘Bob’ is driving downtown. All of the sudden, a pedestrian steps out in the middle of the road, and Bob is forced to suddenly hit the brakes in order to avoid hitting the pedestrian. Now, Bob is pretty annoyed at this selfish and inconsiderate jaywalker. If Bob is in the wrong kind of mood, he might honk or curse at the jaywalker.

Now, imagine another day downtown for Bob. Only this time, Bob is late for an important business appointment. It is very important that he gets there on time. The client is very important and Bob cannot afford to upset him. A parking spot opens up and Bob parks quickly. His mind is on getting to the appointment. He is parked in the middle of the block, right across the street from the client’s office. He imagines the time it would take to walk down to the crosswalk and back, and rushes out into the street. A car that Bob did not see suddenly brakes.

How does Bob react this time? “Crazy driver, why can’t he slow down? I’m walking here! What, does he think he owns the road? He almost hit me! He doesn’t need to be driving that fast anyways…”

Now, the reader might notice an inconsistency here. But Bob does not have the benefit of looking at his activity as a pedestrian relative or in comparison to his experience as a driver. He certainly does not see himself as a jaywalker. This sole act does not define him. These were extenuating circumstances after all.

This is an example of the fundamental attribution error.[i] This is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what another person does is based more on what “kind” of person he is, or what trait he has, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person.

When you are observing someone else’s behavior, and that observation is the only piece of information you have, then you make some assumptions based on that information. It is a form of mental shorthand. That person jaywalked, so he must be a jaywalker. People do not like unpredictability. It means we do not know what to expect or how to act. That is why we prefer this mental shorthand. It provides some basis for how to act next time until we get more information. So the next time I see that guy, I will drive a little more carefully. This default assumption sometimes leads people to make false conclusions about other people’s motives for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is much less likely to occur with people you know better, and occurs least of all when you evaluate your own behavior.

When it comes to our own behavior we have a lot more information. We tend to judge ourselves based on all that information, but with what is referred to as a self-serving bias.[ii] We view that one behavior not as a statement of who we are, but in the context of when and why we did it. This is especially true when it is a ‘negative’ behavior that one does not identify with. With such behaviors, we are more likely to attribute or blame the behavior on some external cause. I only stole because I really needed the money and my back was up against the wall. “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” [iii]

But the bias does not stop there. When I do something good, I attribute it to internal causes. I helped that person because I am a compassionate and kind person. When somebody else does something bad, it is because of internal causes. He stole because he is a thief. If that other person does something good, it is attributed to external causes. He only helped that person because there was someone watching, or because he had something to gain.

This tendency is not true for all people or for all situations. I have met people who rarely if ever fit this model. Some are so painfully aware of the other person’s perspective that they are constantly judging themselves too harshly. However, this error exists for a lot of people.


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“Philosophy means looking at things which one takes for granted and suddenly seeing that they are very odd indeed.”           -Iris Murdoch


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“It is only when one sees one’s own mistakes with a convex lens and does the reverse in the case of others that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two.”      – Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi



[i] Ross, Lee (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology, 23, 241-248.


[ii] The self-serving bias is thoroughly explored in Snyder, C.R.; Higgins, Raymond L.; & Stucky, Rita J. (1983). Excuses: Masquerades in search of grace. New York: Wiley-Interscience.



[iii] From the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley (1992),


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