Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Fundamental attribution error and emotion

Fundamental attribution error and emotion:
What is the relationship between FAE and emotion?

Overview edit

The Fundamental Attribution error (FAE) is also known as correspondence bias or the over-attribution effect. Judgements on behaviour are commonly based on internal factors such as personality or distortion, and this often disregards the effect that external factors for instance, situational influences, might have. The opposite is true when we justify our own behaviour. For example, when people are questioned about why they did a certain thing or acted a certain way, their answer is often related to an external causal attribution - which is the process of trying to justify the cause of an individual's behaviour. People tend to attribute a cause to their behaviour by determining what caused their behaviour[vague]. Another example is, everybody attributes cognitive bias to make assumptions about the actions of a person depending on what "kind" of individual they are rather than considering the social and environmental forces that could have been influenced. Emotions play a significant role in the FAE, as decisions are made based on our moods; happy, sad, angry, bored, or aroused. Activities, as well as hobbies, are chosen in relation to the emotions they instigate.

Example scenario (internal):

Juliet has had a long day and is driving behind a slow car, [grammar?] she assumes the person behind the wheel is a bad driver rather than considering their situational factors such [missing something?] - their car being an old model therefore, runs a bit slower than most cars or maybe the driver had been in an accident in the past and wants to drive slower for safety purposes.

Example scenario (external):

Juliet just got her grades back and she is upset. She failed one class and blames her class teacher for not teaching her the right content. Rather than admitting that Juliet did not study enough to pass her class, she blames her teacher.

Focus questions:

  • What is the relationship between the fundamental attribution error and emotion?
  • How do our emotions influence the fundamental attribution error?
  • Why do our emotions play a role in influencing the fundamental attribution error?
  • Avoiding the fundamental attribution error
  • Learned helplessness
  • Learned optimism
  • The criticisms
  • The benefits

History edit

The attribution was originally recognised by Fritz Heider in 1958, along with The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations - a book written by Fritz Heider introducing the attribution theory. The fundamental attribution error was described as a blunt, logical and rational process - where individuals actively seek out the so called "truth" in the dispositions of others. With that being said, it underestimated the role social factors and overestimated the effect of personality and attitudes on behaviour. Thus, the book describes how individuals define the behaviour of others, as well as themselves.

Emotions and the fundamental attribution error edit

[Provide more detail]

Features of emotion in fundamental attribution error edit

Emotion is a psychological state that involves three distinct elements: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioural or expressive response. Research by Martin D. Coleman stated that participants in a positive mood had larger tendency to act on the fundamental attribution error than those who were in a negative mood (Coleman, 2013). Furthermore, positive emotions can decrease systematic attention to stimulus information and greater reliance on top-down inferences and generic knowledge structures. Individuals with a more positive mood displays a more creative and flexible, but less stimulus-bound processing style (Fiedler, 1994) and when individuals have negative emotions, it can lead to the more careful and systematic processing of stimulus details.

Figure 1. Emotions are expressed by smiles and laughter amongst a diverse group of people.

The relationship edit

Emotion has a significant influence on the fundamental attribution error, [grammar?] it guides the behaviour as decisions that are made are based on what the feeling at that exact moment and therefore; leading to the fundamental attribution error. Furthermore, understanding certain emotions can overall guide an individual's daily life with simplicity and stability.

How do our emotions influence the fundamental attribution error? edit

Individuals are more likely to attribute their own actions and results, especially if they're negative, to situational circumstances[factual?]. Subsequent research demonstrated that emotion-related attribution biases can influence explanations for familiar events[factual?]. With that being said, emotion can influence a processing effect on how individuals deal with a certain cognitive task[factual?][vague].

Why do our emotions play a role in influencing the fundamental attribution error? edit


  • Individuals justify their own actions with situational factors as it is believed only bad people do bad things
  • People want to protect themselves by blaming situational factors and circumstances
  • Accustomed to viewing people as casual agents
  • Once people have more information about the needs, motivation, and thoughts of individuals - they're more likely to take consider the external factors that influence their behaviour
  • Another emotional factor that play[grammar?] a role in the fundamental attribution error is self-esteem
  • Self-esteem often leads individuals to accept more casual responsibility for their positive outcomes rather than for their negative outcomes (Greenwald, 1980)
  • The concept of self-serving, or ego-defensive biases has been evidence to explain this [what?] behaviour
  • By taking responsibility for the positive actions and neglecting the blame for bad outcomes, an individual is able to enhance or protect their own self-esteem

Internal factors - A big reason as to why people act on the fundamental attribution error is due to a heuristic technique, a mental short cut that enables an individual to solve problems and make judgements fairly quick and efficiently[factual?].

How to avoid the fundamental attribution error edit

To avoid the fundamental attribution error, people must first learn to understand the situational factors that could be affecting an individual. This means showing gratitude towards a person, as well as having emotional intelligence and awareness. Nevertheless, it is impossible to overcome the fundamental attribution error completely.[factual?]

The fundamental attribution error in learned helplessness and learned optimism edit

[Provide more detail]

Learned helplessness edit

Figure 2. Feelings of depression caused by learned helplessness.

A psychological definition of learned helplessness refers to when an individual that continuously comes face to face with an unpleasant, and stressful situation does not take precautions regardless of past experiences. This is because they have "learned" that they are helpless, so nothing is done to change the circumstances even when change is possible. People who experience learned helplessness develops a mental state where they believe they cannot control the events that occur around them, causing a loss of motivation but in other words, they do not believe in themselves.

Emotions play a big role when it comes to the fundamental attribution error in learned helplessness, as a big reason as to why people develop learned helplessness is related to failed attempts and self-doubt. According to psychological studies, people who have features of negative outcomes to internal, stable and global factors reflect a perspective in which they have no control over their situation (Ackerman, 2020). Thus, it is said that this concept of not attempting to change a situation instigates a negative mood which could lead to major depression and further mental illnesses.

Learned helplessness can be related to the fundamental attribution error in ways that internal and external factors are also related, and that is due to situational factors and emotion related attributions. An example is when a person is stuck in an awful situation, he or she feels as if this situation is uncontrollable and that they are powerless. Furthermore, individual's[grammar?] who attribute learned helplessness often demonstrate disruptions of emotions showing passivity or aggressiveness. This can impact their performance in cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. Due to this, it is less likely he or she will change these unhealthy patterns of behaviour, which will then subsequently lead them to neglect important components in their daily lives such as dieting, exercising or socialising.

Learned optimism edit

Learned optimism in psychology is the concept that that joy and positivity can be cultivated, and that any negative thoughts or feelings can be challenged. This is also known as positive psychology defined by Martin Seligman. In comparison to learned helplessness, learned optimism is essentially the opposite (Moore, 2020). It is said that learned optimism can decrease symptoms of major depressive order and improve health, increase motivation and performance, and enhance career success.

Having a positive attitude will benefit emotion, as mentioned previously, emotions play a big role in the decisions that we make. The fundamental attribution error in learned optimism can be found in people's personality traits, however, being able to cultivate positive energy and overcome challenges could possibly avoid the fundamental attribution error. For the reason being, learned optimism is all about positivity; so judgement within internal factors or situational factors are often avoided.

Figure 3. This image represents happiness, and being happy is influenced by learned optimism.

Case study edit

A research study conducted by Joseph Forgas (1998) states that happy moods enhanced dispositional attributions based on coerced essay advocating unpopular opinions whereas sad moods reduced it[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Furthermore, Joseph mentioned that people were more likely to infer dispositions based on coerced actions when the subjects[grammar?] behaviour was very salient and captivating. A few more experiments were conducted to confirm these results and also demonstrated that changes in the fundamental attribution error were associated to[awkward expression?] mood induced differences in processing style, as shown by memory data and confirmed by mediational analyses.

Explanations edit

There are many theories that are supported by researchers and studies that state that the fundamental attribution error does occur, however, it can be falsified if it does not occur. Some common examples include:

  1. Just world fallacy - the cognitive bias that an individual's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person. To summarise, it is the belief that all noble actions must be rewarded and that all evil actions will be punished. The concept theorised by Melvin J. Lerner in 1977 states that attributing failures to dispositional causes rather than situational causes (which are unchangeable and uncontrollable) satisfies our need to believe that the world is fair and that we have control over our lives. People are motivated to see a "just" world as this reduces our perceived threats, gives us a sense of protection, guides us through difficult situations and is substantial for us psychologically.[factual?]
  2. Salience of the actor - this is the concept that people attribute an observed effect to potential causes that grasps our attention. The observation that occurs when we judge other people is the primary reference point whilst the situation is overlooked as if it is nothing but simply background. Equally as important, the attributions for other peoples[grammar?] behaviour are more likely to focus on the person we see, and not the circumstances that influence that person. In other words, when we observe ourselves, we notice the things happening around us.[factual?]
  3. Lack of effortful adjustment - However, despite the fact that we are aware that an individual's behaviour is influenced by situational factors, we will still act upon the fundamental attribution error. For the reason being, behavioural and situational influences are not taken into account when judging someone. In order to adjust our inference, we need to consider the situational constraints, although, this is easier said than done as we need to put in conscious effort to make it effective.[factual?]
  4. Culture - Cultural differences play a role in attribution error, [grammar?] people from Western cultures are more likely to attribute the error. In comparison, people from collectivistic cultures are less likely to.[factual?]

The fundamental attribution error as a motivation edit

In relation to the fundamental attribution error as a motivation, research states that the fundamental attribution error relates to a general tendency to view human behaviour as influenced or controlled by the individual, rather than by situational circumstances. Subsequently, not having control over your personal actions would mean that individual's may not be responsible for their actions, which goes against the social and legal basis of the function of society. In addition, motivation in the fundamental attribution error also relates to when people underestimate the influence of situational factors on human behaviour, primarily to protect the general notion of personal responsibility.

The problem edit

The main issue with the fundamental attribution error is that people fail to see things from another's perspective, as everyone perceive things differently. However, we tend to believe our own perception of what is correct and thus, falling into the trap of the fundamental attribution error. According to Michael Simmons (2018), cognitive bias destroys relationships; this can have a devastating effect on ones[grammar?] emotion. The fundamental attribution error as we know, causes us to overemphasize an individual's "bad" behaviour but underemphasise the situation they were in. Undoubtedly, as a result, leaves people feeling distraught[Rewrite to improve clarity]. This is where emotions play a substantial role in the fundamental attribution error, without emotion... could there even be a fundamental attribution error? Highly unlikely.

Emotion edit

With emotions, we are able to respond, think, behave and so on. Why is it that human beings are so prone to being the "good guy" in any given situation? As mentioned previously, people are more likely to attribute their own actions and results, especially if they are negative situational circumstances therefore, our emotions subsequently guide our behaviour.

The criticism edit

The fundamental attribution error may not be experienced globally across cultures, such as collectivist cultures. According to Saul Mcleod (2018), American children were more likely to depend on disposition as an explanation of events observed, whilst children in India focused their explanation on situational factors. With that being said, Western cultures are more prone to attribute to this error. Some research suggest that Western individualism is related to viewing both oneself and others as independent agents, which can subsequently lead you to focus more on individuals rather than contextual details.[factual?]

Are there any benefits? edit

A potential benefit is making assumptions that someone's actions are determined primarily by their disposition, rather than by situational circumstances - this is often lower than assuming the opposite. With that being said, when making assumptions about an individual's action, it would be more ideal to assume that their behaviour is more influenced by their personality than it actually is; rather than to assume the opposite.

Another potential benefit is how the fundamental attribution error is associated with learned optimism, a concept that cultivates positivity and joy in psychology. Practicing this concept will not only better your mental health, but challenge you to reach your highest potential. Thus with instigating learned optimism, it can a guide to maintaining motivation when pursuing goals which will then lead to successful outcomes.

Figure 4. Practicing learned optimism can lead a person to successful outcomes, such as success in business and travelling.

Give people the benefit of the doubt - a possible solution? edit

As mentioned previously, the fundamental attribution error cannot be overcome completely. A possible solution is to be aware that the fundamental attribution error can be attributed, rather than jumping into accusations straight away, we can give people the benefit of the doubt and try to exercise the concept of learned optimism for more positive explanations of another person's behaviour. Overall, applying this knowledge will equal out our natural instinct to judge and increase the ability to understand the perspective of someone other than ourselves.

Quiz edit

1 Diego gets shoved by a man in a rush whilst walking, he yells out "watch where you are going! The old man is blind as a bat!" Is Diego attributing to external factors or internal factors?


2 Learned ________ can be a potential benefit related to the fundamental attribution error.


Conclusion edit

Overall, the concept of the fundamental attribution error is widely known and many fall victim to this error by making judgements on an individual's behaviour based on internal factors, rather than situational influences. However, the opposite is true when we judge our own behaviour as we do not want to be portrayed as the "bad" person because individuals justify their own actions with situational factors as it is believed only bad people do bad things. Equally as important are emotions, decisions are made based primarily on our moods; happy, sad, angry, bored, or aroused. So the decisions that are made are essentially chosen in relation to the emotions that are instigated. With that being said, this book chapter reviewed the fundamental attribution error and its relationship with emotion, considered the influences such as our emotions, learned helplessness, learned optimism and analysed the explanations, the potential motivations, the issues, the criticism and last, the possible solutions and benefits.

The fundamental attribution error and emotion play a big role on how people act. Behaviour, decisions, and moods etc., are primarily based on how ones[grammar?] emotions correlate with the fundamental attribution error and with that being said, nobody can avoid the fundamental attribution error but, people can give the benefit of the doubt. After analysing relevant literature, the fundamental attribution error is a concept that we all have all possessed mainly due to our emotions. Although, there are potential benefits such as exercising the concept of learned optimism[grammar?]. Nevertheless, it is a necessity to be aware that we can attribute this error in order to avoid it, but the fundamental attribution error will continue to be active due to the influence of the emotions that we possess as mentally stable human beings.

See also edit

References edit

Ackerman, C. (2020). Learned Helplessness: Seligman's Theory of Depression (+ Cure). Retrieved 16 October 2020, from

Cherry, K. (2019). Emotions and Types of Emotional Responses. Verywell Mind. Retrieved 27 August 2020, from

Coleman, M. (2013). Emotion and the Ultimate Attribution Error. Current Psychology, 32(1), 71-81.

Forgas, J. (1998). On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 75(2), 318-331.

Fundamental Attribution Error - IResearchNet. Psychology. (2020). Retrieved 12 October 2020, from,rather%20than%20by%20situational%20factors.

Harvey, J., & Weary, G. (1984). Current Issues in Attribution Theory and Research. Annual Review Of Psychology, 35(1), 427-459.

Legg, T. (2019). Learned helplessness: Examples, symptoms, and treatment. Retrieved 12 October 2020, from

Mcleod, S. (2018). Fundamental Attribution Error|Simply Psychology. Retrieved 14 August 2020, from

Moran, J., Jolly, E., & Mitchell, J. (2014). Spontaneous Mentalizing Predicts the Fundamental Attribution Error. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26(3), 569-576.

Moore, C. (2020). Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman’s Glass Half Full?. Retrieved 16 October 2020, from

Social Psychology and Influences on Behavior | Introduction to Psychology. (2020). Retrieved 12 October 2020, from

External links edit