Fundamental Attribution Error

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Avoiding the jump to conclusion mat.

In today’s climate it is easy to find ourselves upset or frustrated by what is going on around us. Although there are many things worth being upset about, sometimes it’s important to perform a self query to see if some of our frustration may be misguided or misinformed. In doing this query it is important to think about the idea of Fundamental Attribution Errors (FAE).


A popular term used among psychologists, FAE describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality of others while underestimating the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior. To make matters worse, we often give ourselves a pass on similar actions by attributing them to the situation.

For example, your relief is running late for their shift and you are frustrated with them because of it and have little tolerance for their action. And then when you run late, it’s because your child hid your ID badge and you had to search your car high and low to find it.  Simply put, FAE is the idea of taking all portions of an individual event and how that may have affected an outcome or action.

Why is this such a big deal?  FAE impacts not just the specific event, but percolates into subsequent encounters with the person previously judged.  Take the co-worker that was late or tends to run late more than you do.


Your perception of that person can begin to be affected and it’s easy to split into applying your frustration to their character in general, leading to the potential to question their medical judgment and more.  This can ultimately impact almost any interaction you have with your co-worker.  These same concepts apply to judging our patients, family, friends and more.

While FAE is nearly implicit in our reactions to others, it is possible to break the cycle.  One easy way to avoid FAE is to give the person you are judging, and yes that is exactly what you are doing, the same breaks you give yourself.  If someone is running late, think about the reasons you run late and give them the benefit of doubt.  Additionally, instead of the negative focus on a person’s qualities.

This simple action will allow for positive thoughts and diminish the potential for FAE.  The big picture here is Emotional Intelligence (EI), an area of increasing focus for psychology and beyond that looks at the concept of self-awareness, regulation and empathy amongst other social skills.  There are even EI tests one can take with a score similar to that of an IQ test.

Ultimately, when you are making snap judgments about someone, take a step back and ask yourself if you are risking making a Forced Attribution Error and what you can do to avoid that potentially harmful mistake.


For more Fundamental Attribution Error check out Drew, Tanner and Andy’s conversation about it on the EM Over Easy Podcast.





EM OVER EASY is a podcast by three EM physicians, Andy Little, Tanner Gronoowski and Drew Kalnow, with a focus on #MoreThanMedicine. The podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and more. For more about the content and hosts, visit and follow them on twitter @emovereasy.

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