The Flip Side of the Fundamental Attribution Error

Originally posted 2011-09-07

Fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias) is the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur. – Gilbert and Malone

There are many excellent explanations of the fundamental attribution error, of which this one is my favorite. Read all of them, I’ll only give a short summary here:

FAE is the tendency to incorrectly explain situations by internal/enduring personal traits where situational context provides a better explanation.

The FAE is commonly described as an error made by /other people/. That is, if person A is the person kicking his desk angrily because his coworker pushed him into the wall earlier that day, then the FAE is committed by person B, who thinks person A is an angry person. But the FAE has a flip side (let’s call it self-FAE): the error committed by person A. Person A thinks that he’s not a particularly angry person, but it’s also true that other people might deal with the situation in a less physically violent manner. In that sense, he is, in fact, an angry person, and he is failing to recognize this facet of himself.

Self-FAE, then, is the tendency to over-explain your own situation by situational context where internal/enduring personal traits provide a better explanation.

Self-FAE is in fact, extremely common, and may be the root of most self-esteem problems. The poster child of self-FAE is impostor syndrome, in which a person, having been awarded accolades by his peers for an achievement, feels like an impostor undeserving of the accolades. I got to MIT with a silver medal from the IChO under my belt. But when I saw other IMO/IPhO/IChO/IBO medalists who seemed clearly smarter than I was, I felt like an impostor who had only got to the IChO by some series of coincidences and lucky breaks. (Friends commented to me that they’d love to have that problem. Given that I’m not jealous of their problems, they probably have a point.) Graduate students at top research institutions are almost universally affected by the impostor syndrome, thinking that they couldn’t possibly have been accepted to a top school on their merits alone. I know of a few Nobel laureates who continue to have self-esteem problems.

I’ve personally gotten over my impostor syndrome problem. But for some graduate students, the feeling stays with them forever, following them into their postdocs, tenure-track positions, full-professorships. You would think that at some point, a well-renowned professor who wins a Nobel Prize would stop worrying about whether he deserved the titles he has, instead of offering exams with extra credit questions such as “Who won the ____ Nobel Prize in _______?”.

Imposter syndrome is but one manifestation of self-FAE. In addition to seeing themselves as less intelligent/hardworking, people will see themselves as less corrupt, less angry, less irrational, and/or less judgmental than they actually are. I don’t provide sources for some of these claims, but I’ll let your personal experiences be the evidence.

Use self-FAE to your advantage. Remind yourself that you are not just someone spurred on by environmental cues, but someone who is in fact, a hard-working, goal-driven person. And also remind yourself that you might actually be angry person, and that you should work on reining in your temper.