The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology
Perhaps the most consequential cognitive error we make is what Lee Ross has dubbed “the Fundamental Attribution Error.” This is the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to their attributes – personality traits, skills, preferences – and to slight the role of the situation. When we predict how people will behave in situations of a type where we have never observed the person, we frequently miss the mark. Joe has always been extroverted when we hang out with him and our other buddies, so we erroneously assume he will be extroverted at the office meeting. If we use presumed personality traits as an excellent guide to predicting behavior in novel situations, we will be wrong more often than right. The schoolchild who cheats on the exam is scarcely more likely to steal spare change than a child who doesn’t cheat. The colleague who is conscientious about keeping her promises may have the messiest desk in the building. So what should we use as a basis of prediction? Our knowledge of the behavior of other people in the particular situation. If all your friends liked the Hitchcock movie you are extremely likely to as well, no matter whether you like Hitchcock movies in general or not.