It never hurts to remind ourselves of the fundamental attribution error.

Wotcha mean “attribution”?

In social psychologyattribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors. In real life, attribution is something we all do every day, usually without any awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences.

For example, over the course of a typical day you probably make numerous attributions about your own behavior as well as that of the people around you.

And the dogs around you.

If you do something crappy, it’s because that person over there did something crappy x2 to you.

If that person over there does something crappy, it’s because that person is a crap.

See? You have reasons, they have bad natures.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures.

Psychologists refer to this tendency as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

The fundamental attribution error explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control. The term blaming the victim is often used by social psychologists to describe a phenomenon in which people blame innocent victims of crimes for their misfortune.

In such cases, people may accuse the victim of failing to protect themselves from the event by behaving in a certain manner or not taking specific precautionary steps to avoid or prevent the event.

Examples of this include accusing rape victims, domestic violence survivors and kidnap victims of behaving in a manner that somehow provoked their attackers. Researchers suggest that hindsight bias causes people to mistakenly believe that victims should have been able to predict future events and therefor take steps to avoid them.

Here’s an interesting fact. Being aware of this error doesn’t prevent you from making it.


  1. quixote says

    It may be mentioned elsewhere in the article, but I think it’s important to remember that much victim-blaming is really motivated reasoning in a desperate attempt to feel safe.

    If the victim could have avoided her/his suffering by not being “stupid,” then the blamer, who is of course very not-stupid, has nothing to fear.

    The psychological benefit of making the error may help explain why people still make it even when they’re aware of it.

  2. tkreacher says

    Similar to, or co-mixed with, the Just World Fallacy, where people tend to think of the world as inherently fair. Where poor are poor because lazy and rich are rich because innovative hard work. Where victims did something, somewhere, somehow, because why else would this horrible thing happen?

    People often refuse to accept a reality where bad shit can happen to good people for no good reason.

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