Fundamental Attribution Error

Here’s what John Sterman, a systems thinking and modeling expert at MIT, has to say about the fundamental attribution error: 1

A fundamental principle of system dynamics states that the structure of the system gives rise to its behavior. However, people have a strong tendency to attribute the behavior of others to dispositional rather than situational factors, that is, to character and especially character flaws rather than the system in which these people are acting. The tendency to blame the person rather than the system is so strong psychologists call it the “fundamental attribution error.”

In complex systems different people placed in the same structure tend to behave in similar ways. When we attribute behavior to personality we lose sight of how the structure of the system shaped our choices. The attribution of behavior to individuals and special circumstances rather than system structure diverts our attention from the high leverage points where redesigning the system or governing policy can have significant, sustained, beneficial effects on performance. When we attribute behavior to people rather than system structure, the focus of management becomes scapegoating and blame rather than design of organizations in which ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results.

The fundamental attribution error is falsely blaming an individual social agent rather than the system. The agent can be a person, a group, an organization, an industry, a government, and so on.

Why this is critical for solving problems

The fundamental attribution error is the most common error of them all when trying to determine the cause of a social system problem. In this type of problem the real cause is almost always the system rather than individual agents. The error is easy to make because in most everyday social problems it's individual agents who are the cause. The error is so critically central to the social sciences that “Ross argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.” 2

It follows that one of the first things problem solvers need to do when approaching a difficult complex system social problem is to be consciously aware of the fundamental attribution error, so they can avoid it. That's how strong the tendency to make the error is.

An attribution is an explanation for the cause of something. People make attributions in order to explain why the world works the way it does and to learn from their experiences.

Let's examine an example. Conventional wisdom may conclude that if we can just get rid of a certain bad politician, or a bad administration, or a bad political party, then everything will be okay. This is false, because it is the structure of the social system that causes “bad agents” to appear and occupy their places in the system. Eliminate a bad agent, and another one will appear in his place. Due to the random variation in the behavior of independent agents, on the average the replacement agent will be different. If the “bad agent” was worse than usual, which happens frequently when random fluctuations are considered, then on the average the replacement agent will be “better,” which really means less bad. This will seem to have solved the problem, until the next time another “bad agent” appears. The only way to reduce the “badness” of the average agent is to change the structure of the system.

Sometimes the problem really is the person, like when a firm discovers it has hired the wrong person. However, even in that case, the first question should be “What caused us to hire such a person?” That should lead to the defect in the system that allowed the wrong person to be hired.

If you catch yourself thinking how bad a certain politician is, stop yourself and think instead, why is it the system attracts and elects such people? Is there a better system, or is the present system about the best, on the average, that’s possible?

Do Over 99% of Environmentalists Make the Fundamental Attribution Error?

Yes. Every environmentalist I've ever met or read the work of is a classic activist.3 This includes organizations, scholars, politicians, and government agencies. All use the process of Classic Activism to solve problems. The process assumes that once the proper practices needed to live sustainably are found, all it takes after that to solve the problem is to convince people to change to those proper practices. The implicit assumption is that people are doing the wrong thing and that once told what the right thing is, by using steps 3 and 4 of Classic Activism, people will change their behavior and the problem will be solved.

It hasn't worked.

Why? Because Classic Activism commits the fundamental attribution error. It's built into the process. The process contains no steps for root cause analysis, which for difficult complex system social problems always leads to system level root causes. All Classic Activism has for where the causes may be found is the fundamental belief that all unsustainable behavior can be attributed to the behavior of individuals.

This is a shame because it's so easy to avoid the error. All you have to do is be aware of it. Don't blame the person. Blame the system.

But what process would problem solvers use then? They could no longer use Classic Activism because the whole process is built around the false assumption of the fundamental attribution error.

They can try Analytical Activism.


(1) Source: Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, by John Sterman, 2000, page 28. The author uses the fundamental attribution error to make the even more telling point that people tend to have “flawed cognitive maps” or mental models of complex system problems, so they find it difficult to solve complex system problems.

(2) Quote from the Wikipedia entry for the fundamental attribution error.

(3) Except for the very few innovators who have converted to Analytical Activism after studying the material at

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Teaching The Fundamental Attribution Error

That's the title of a terrific article about teaching a college class about the error. Excerpt:

“The fundamental attribution error is so central to learning sociology that it astonishes me that I've never seen it covered in a Soc 101 text. The fundamental attribution error is the idea that each of us as an individual is biased toward viewing our behaviors within the context of our circumstances. [Context refers to the system around the person.] However, when we view the behaviors of others we attribute their behaviors to who they are as a person or to their character. The classic example is speeding.

“To begin a class discussion on the fundamental attribution error I ask my students to think about the last time they broke the speed limit. Not like 5 miles an hour over, but like really really broke the speed limit. After a moment I ask, 'So why were you speeding?' Students describe how they typically don't recklessly speed unless there is some dire need to get somewhere fast. Students talk about being fired if they are late to work one more time, sleeping through an alarm and being late to a final or midterm, or speeding to catch a flight. Many times students start their explanations by saying, 'I typically don't speed, but...' When asked why they speed students provide a litany of circumstantial reasons for their 'unusual' behavior.

“I then ask students to think about the last time they were driving and someone blew by them or was weaving through traffic recklessly. After they collect this memory, I ask them how they feel about the speeding driver. 'I typically yell, you ___ hole!' one of my students said this semester. Students go on to describe how they feel the reckless driver is a danger to society and they need to be stopped. Student describe speeders as fundamentally different people from them. They have a character flaw that makes them speed. There is almost always no discussion of how the other speeders may be experiencing circumstances similar to the times that students recalled speeding. Basically what pans out every time I have this discussion is that, students speed because of unique circumstances, but others speed because of who they are.”

If you like that article, here's another one to drive the point home. The title is “The Fundamental Attribution Error: It's the Situation, Not the Person.”

For a deeper look see cognitive bias and the Wikipedia entries on attribution theory and the fundamental attribution error.