Causal Attribution: Why People Do What They Do

Throughout our lives, we interact with countless people. Say, for example, a person not far from you is talking loudly on the phone, another person is gnawing on an apple, and the third one just pushed someone with his shoulder and soon disappeared from sight. But why are they doing all these things? Because the first person is noisy and unrestrained, the second one loves apples more than anything, and the third is terribly rude? Or because the first person’s phone works poorly, the second got an apple from his wife, and the third feels ill and is thus hurrying to the doctor? Constructing assumptions and interpreting the reasons behind another person’s actions without knowing the real reasons for their actions is called causal attribution (from the Latin words causa, meaning reason and attributio, meaning attribution).

Fundamental attribution error

In an attempt to explain other people's actions, we inevitably face cognitive distortions, which prevent us from explaining them correctly. One such distortion is the fundamental attribution error.

Imagine this situation: a student hasn’t prepared sufficiently for the lesson and gets a bad mark. How will his classmates explain this for themselves? Probably something like this: “He was too lazy to prepare.” And how will the student himself explain this situation? Probably along these lines: "The topic was very difficult and the teacher asked questions that were too difficult." However, we will never know what really happened with our abstract student. The situation we just described represents an example of the psychological phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error.

The essence of the phenomenon lies in our tendency to explain others’ behavior based more on their individual characteristics than on the external circumstances of the situation. So, in our example, the student is a participant in the event and appeals to the circumstances, while his classmates, as observers, explain what happened by the student's characteristics.

However, it’s worth noting that this phenomenon is more prevalent when we don’t really like a person or their behavior is unfamiliar to us. After all, you probably agree that if instead of an abstract student, we were discussing your close friend whose diligence you don't doubt, you are more likely to support him and explain what happened by a coincidence of circumstances.

Looking for the real reasons

To make our picture of the world complete, it is often important for us to understand why people behave the way they do. However, in conditions of insufficient information, the likelihood that we will come up with incorrect explanations increases greatly. What conclusion can be drawn from this? If it really matters to you why someone did something, just ask them. And draw a conclusion based on the acquired knowledge. If the person is unfamiliar to you and knowing the reasons for their actions will not affect your life in any way — come up with whatever reason is most pleasant for you. What do you have to lose? ;)

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