Psychology in the Classroom #3 – Fundamental Attribution Error

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

Today’s installment focuses on fundamental attribution error. This builds on the more general attribution theory* which says we can attribute someone’s actions to either their personal disposition (their personality, who they are) OR to the situation or environment around them that contributed to their actions.

So, for example, if you are driving down the highway doing the speed limit and a car drives passes you going a good 10-15 miles per hour faster than you are, you may attribute their speeding to either their disposition (they are reckless and don’t care about others’ safety) OR you may attribute their speeding to their situation (maybe they’re in a rush to get to the hospital due to an emergency). How you attribute the other driver’s actions is attribution theory.

Fundamental attribution error says we tend to overestimate the impact of the disposition and underestimate the power of the situation in a person’s decision making. Think back to the example above. I know, if someone came speeding by me while driving, my first thoughts would be to attribute their actions to their disposition and not even really consider a situation where they needed to drive a little faster for a good reason.

What’s really interesting about this is that we tend to apply this error in reverse when considering our own actions. Put yourself in the situation of the person speeding. If you were speeding, you would probably have a good reason (based on the situation/environment) to explain your actions; there’s an emergency, I’m going to be late for work, I was just going with the flow of traffic, et cetera. Notice how all of those reasons are based on the situation and none apply to your personality or disposition?

And are we generally more understanding and kind when attributing someone’s actions to their disposition or the situation? The situation, right? And, as stated above, we tend to apply that kindness to our actions but not the actions of others…leading us to more severely (and perhaps, unfairly) judge others’ actions. This aspect of human behavior is really interesting to me…really interesting.

How does this apply to the classroom?

Compassion…from everyone, for everyone. So, this not only applies to our classroom, but to how we interpret others around us wherever we are.

From the standpoint of the teacher, knowing I am human and subject to this error, I take a second to consider how the environment may influence a person (usually a student’s actions in class). When I do this, I pretty much immediately become more understanding and begin to take the student’s behaviors less personal. While it may not excuse a student’s behavior, it may help to explain it and steer how we deal with the behavior. Zoom out and you can see how this thinking can also make lead to more compassionate interactions with our colleagues, administrators, and parents.

When I discuss this with students as part of a unit on social psychology, I ask them to think about how they judge others’ actions and how they attach an assumption about that person based upon those judgements. What if they fought the fundamental attribution error and considered the situation/environment? What else could be influencing that person’s actions? When they stop to make these types of considerations, students typically become more understanding and start to create habits of compassion and kindness for others.

How can you talk about the fundamental attribution error within your discipline? How can you tailor a discussion to your students?

*Actually, many different social psychologists have proposed their own attribution theory. So, if you do a search for the concept, you’re likely to retrieve many different versions.

One thought on “Psychology in the Classroom #3 – Fundamental Attribution Error

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  1. Great blog. What I miss is the typical teacher application of attribution theory.
    The teacher: That student didn’t do well because (s)he didn’t listen, do the work, study hard… You (almost) never hear: (S)he did poorly because I taught it wrong, gave too much room, chose the wrong approach…
    I write this because as a teacher, we know the student attributions ranging from the situation as in: The teacher didn’t give enough time, the other courses asked too much of my time…to: The teacher didn’t teach it in my learning style, (s)he asked questions that (s)he didn’t prepare us for…
    In Dutch we say ‘Trek de boetekleed zelf aan’ which can roughly be translated to ‘Seek the problem in yourself’.
    That’s enough for a Tuesday morning 😂😜

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