Let me start with a formal description.
The fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior.
That’s clear as mud. What does it really mean? Let me speak without nuance.
Fundamental Attribution Error means we can’t help but think—that if I do something bad, it’s because of the circumstances forced me to, whereas if you do something bad, it’s because you’re bad. That’s the fundamental attribution error in action.
We don’t always fall into the fundamental attribution error, but the tendency to do so is as natural as being human. The error is built in to the way we evaluate situations. Things look different for ourselves because we consider non-personal causes while with others who we know nothing of their daily life.
If a member of our family does something bad, we often enclose them in our personal range and think it’s sad that circumstances conspired against them. If unknown persons do something bad, we usually enclose then in the ‘other’ range. Situational explanations rarely occur to us. They are bad people.
Everyone has their own personal ranges dividing insiders—judged leniently considering circumstances, from outsiders—judged harshly on personal shortcomings.
How might this affect important social issues?
The American Dream
If you work hard and follow the rules, the American Dream says you will succeed. Everyone believes or wants to believe this. We believe the American Dream holds for others as well as ourselves.
However, in recent decades, many high school graduates have lost their middle-class jobs or could never find good jobs in the first place. Are the unemployed and underemployed failures or has the American Dream failed?
The way you define others plays a large role in how you view the question. If the unemployed and underemployed are in your other class, then they have failed because of personal failures. That’s why they didn’t succeed. The American Dream continues on.
If much economic damage occurred in your personal circle, those people are victims of forces beyond their control. The American Dream is in tatters.
Your view of the American Dream is influenced by the way the Fundamental Attribution Error affects your perceptions.
Image of soccer Jamie Carraghan indicated he had no choice from glasgowstandard.wordpress.com
Image of unemployment line from Wikicommons, public domain