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Intro

Have you ever found yourself making assumptions about someone’s personality based on a single encounter or action? Maybe you’ve seen someone cut you off in traffic and immediately thought of them as selfish or rude, without considering that they may have been in a hurry or dealing with an emergency. Or perhaps you’ve heard about a colleague’s mistake at work and assumed that they are generally careless or incompetent, rather than considering that they may have been under a lot of pressure or facing unexpected challenges.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the origins and implications of the fundamental attribution error in the context of design research, and consider ways to overcome this bias in order to better understand and communicate with the people we are designing for.

Definition

The fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency to overestimate the influence of personal characteristics and underestimate the influence of situational factors in explaining someone else’s behaviour. In other words, we tend to attribute other people’s actions to their personality or character, rather than considering the context or environment in which they were acting.

The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency to overestimate the role of internal characteristics (such as personality or ability) in determining the behaviour of others, while underestimating the role of external factors (such as situational or cultural influences). This error often leads to essentialising the behaviour of others, as it suggests that their actions are a direct result of their inherent characteristics rather than the context in which they are acting.

Essentialisation

Essentialisation is the process of reducing the complexity of a concept or group of people to a single defining characteristic or trait. It often involves making generalisations or assumptions about a group of people based on limited or biased information. This type of thinking can lead to stereotypes and can be harmful, as it ignores the diversity and individuality within a group and can contribute to prejudice and discrimination.

Essentialising the behaviour of others can be harmful, as it ignores the complexity of human behaviour and can contribute to stereotypes and prejudice. It’s important to recognize and challenge this type of thinking in order to have a more accurate and nuanced understanding of others and the world around us.

For example, essentialising someone’s race, gender, or ethnicity can lead to the belief that all members of that group are the same and have the same characteristics, experiences, and abilities. This can have serious consequences, such as limiting opportunities for those who are essentialised and perpetuating discrimination and inequality.

With ourselves

We can also apply the fundamental attribution error to ourselves, or make what is known as the self-serving bias. This refers to the tendency to attribute our own successes to internal characteristics (such as effort or ability), while attributing our failures to external factors (such as bad luck or external obstacles).

For example, if we do well on a test or project, we might attribute our success to our hard work or intelligence, rather than considering the resources or support we may have had. On the other hand, if we struggle with a task, we might attribute our struggle to external factors such as a difficult subject matter or not enough time, rather than considering our own effort or ability.

Consequences

The fundamental attribution error or bias is important in understanding how inequality is often misunderstood because it can lead people to attribute the circumstances of disadvantaged groups to their personal characteristics, rather than to structural or systemic factors.

For example, if someone is living in poverty, it is easy to attribute their circumstances to their personal characteristics, such as laziness or lack of motivation. However, poverty is often the result of a complex interplay of factors, including economic, political, and social structures that create and maintain inequities. By failing to consider these structural factors, we may misunderstand the root causes of poverty and inequality, and therefore be less likely to develop effective solutions.

The fundamental attribution error can contribute to the stigmatisation and discrimination of disadvantaged groups, as it may lead people to view them as personally responsible for their circumstances, rather than recognising the ways in which larger systems and structures contribute to their challenges.

A critical reality

It’s important to note that the fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that affects how individuals perceive and interpret the behaviour of others. While it may be a factor in shaping societal beliefs and structures, it is not the sole or primary cause of these structures.

In the current context of neoliberalism, the fundamental attribution error plays a role in shaping beliefs about individual responsibility and meritocracy. Neoliberalism is a political and economic ideology that emphasises free markets, limited government intervention, and individual responsibility, and it often promotes the idea that individuals are primarily responsible for their own success or failure. This belief can be reinforced by the fundamental attribution error, as it leads people to attribute outcomes to individual characteristics rather than external factors.

However, it’s important to recognise that the fundamental attribution error is just one of many factors that can shape societal beliefs and structures, and that these beliefs and structures are often influenced by a complex interplay of historical, cultural, economic, and political factors.

In design research

For design researchers, understanding and recognising this bias is important because it can help them approach situations with a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of user behaviour.

By considering both internal and external factors that may influence user behaviour, design researchers can have a more accurate and well-rounded view of user needs, preferences, and motivations. This can lead to more effective and inclusive design solutions that are better suited to the needs and experiences of a diverse range of users.

By attributing the problem to personal characteristics rather than external factors, we may develop solutions that are based on flawed assumptions or misunderstandings, potentially leading to ineffective or even harmful outcomes.

By reducing the problem to a single defining characteristic or trait, designers may essentialise the problem or the people affected by it, ignoring the complexity and diversity of the issue and potentially leading to harmful stereotypes or assumptions.

By relying on their own biases and assumptions, designers may fail to consider the perspectives and experiences of diverse stakeholders, leading to solutions that do not adequately address the needs and goals of all parties involved.

Additionally, recognising the fundamental attribution error can help design researchers avoid making assumptions or generalisations about users based on limited or biased information. This can prevent them from essentialising user behaviour and ensure that their research findings are more representative of the full range of user experiences and needs.

Approach

  1. Recognise and acknowledge the bias: The fundamental attribution error is a natural and often unconscious tendency, so it is important to be aware of it and actively work to mitigate its impact on your research. Recognising and acknowledging the bias can help you be more mindful of its potential influence on your interpretation of the data and your research conclusions.
  2. Remember that people are more likely to attribute the behaviour of others to their personal characteristics rather than to external factors. This can lead to a tendency to blame individuals for problems, rather than looking for systemic solutions.
  3. Recognise that people are often influenced by their circumstances and environment, not just their personal characteristics. This can help designers create solutions that take into account the context in which a product or service will be used.
  4. Embrace empathy and try to understand the perspective of people. This can help designers create more effective solutions that address the needs and challenges of the people who will be using them.
  5. Encourage diverse perspectives and encourage open communication within your design team. This can help designers identify and address different points of view and better understand the needs of users.
  6. Engage in collaborative sensemaking with people affected by the problems you are trying to solve. This can involve actively seeking out and amplifying the voices and perspectives of those who are most affected by the problem, and working with them to co-create solutions that address their needs and challenges. Collaborative sensemaking can involve a range of activities, such as participatory design workshops, boundary work, and one-on-one interviews with users.
  7. Use multiple methods: To reduce the impact of the fundamental attribution error, it can be helpful to use multiple research methods that provide different perspectives on the problem or issue you are studying. This can include both qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as methods that involve both direct observation and self-report data.

In conclusion, the fundamental attribution error is a common cognitive bias that can influence our understanding and interpretation of the behaviour of the people we design for. By recognising and acknowledging this bias, considering the context in which behaviour occurs, using multiple research methods, seeking diverse perspectives, and reflecting on our own biases, we can work to mitigate the impact of the fundamental attribution error in our research and design practice.

By taking these steps and engaging in co-creation with the people we design for, we can gain a more nuanced and accurate understanding of their needs, goals, and perspectives, and work towards creating more inclusive and equitable design outcomes that truly meet their needs and goals.

Pascal Wicht

Pascal is a strategic designer and futurist, main author and creator of Whispers & Giants.