What is the Fundamental Attribution Error?
The fundamental attribution error is a term, which refers to the common human error in which people tend to underestimate situational influences and overestimate individual personality factors, when explaining behavior. Even though most research on crime favors the view that both personality and situational factors play a mutual role in determining behavior, most people neglect to realize or acknowledge this. The fundamental attribution error tends to only apply when making attributions about others.
When explaining our own behavior, the opposite is true; we tend to discount dispositional factors in favor of situational forces. This is also known as a self-serving bias, in which we tend to give credit to our personality traits when referring to something good about ourselves; when referring to bad things or events, we blame external situational forces.
For example, if we were to hypothetically ask a group of correctional counselors why they believe certain inmates committed crimes, they would most likely attribute it to personality characteristics: laziness, aggression, negative worldview, etc. If we were to ask the inmates, they would probably blame external forces for their problems, such as: poverty, lack of employment opportunities, abuse as a child, etc. Some forensic psychologists believe that our dispositional or personality factors actually play a very small role in determining behavior. It is argued that anyone may engage in criminal behavior if placed into the right situation, no matter what personality characteristics the individual may possess. Understanding the role of the fundamental attribution error in how people think is important for any criminal defense attorney; effective communication with the jury is key when aiming for a verdict of not guilty.
In future posts we will explore two situational forces that have received plenty of attention in recent years, and are believed to play an important role in antisocial and criminal behaviors: obedience to perceived or actual authority, and deindividuation.
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