Fundamental Attribution Error: Could This Psychological Phenomenon Be Holding Your Love Life Back?

6 min read

He tried to be a little too funny, too flirty and accidentally went over the line. Delete and Block? Welcome to the world of fundamental attribution error.

We’ve all been there.

Imagine the scenario:

She’s having great banter with a new romantic interest she has yet to meet. He’s hot, he’s funny, he’s cool. The texts run thick and fast. Nothing too saucy, nothing too risqué, but it’s cheeky, flirty and getting you excited.

Her phone pings for the umpteenth time. This time, though, she scowls disappointedly. He’s taken the joke just a smidgen too far. Innuendos are all very well, but actually mentioning S-E-X? That, my friend, is a faux pas. Delete. Block. Next.

Shame. He seemed awesome. Obviously she was wrong.

…Except, we all make mistakes. What if this situation were no different? He tried to be a little too funny, a little too outrageous, and accidentally went over the line. Sure. But can’t it happen to the best of us?

No, you tell yourself, I would never make that mistake. I know my boundaries.

Welcome to the murky, cognitively dissonant realm of what social psychologists term the fundamental attribution error.

What is a fundamental attribution error?

Sometimes referred to as a correspondence bias or attribution effect, a fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a significant phenomenon in social psychology because, once you know about it, a lot of what believe about yourself and others can be dramatically undermined.

An FAE can be defined simply as the tendency to overestimate the effect of personality and underestimate the effect of a situation when explaining behaviour.

In other words, when a stranger does something we perceive as bad or wrong, we attribute their act to some fundamental character defect they have as opposed to the circumstance they are in. Think of that guy who cut you off in traffic yesterday. What was your gut reaction? You almost certainly concluded that he was arrogant, angry, unreasonable. In other words, you placed too much emphasis on his personality and too little on the situation. It almost certainly didn’t occur to you that he might just be on the way to the deathbed of his great-aunt Greta to bid her farewell.

It is well established in social psychology that people are quick to form FAEs about others, especially those with whom they are unfamiliar, but that we very rarely make them about ourselves. Now, when we do things, of course, there is always a watertight, absolutely legitimate reason. Right?

Committing an FAE is nothing to be ashamed of, we all do it. It actually makes a huge amount of sense from an evolutionarily point of view. When a stranger acts out against us, it is safer to assume they are dangerous or otherwise of unsound morals, then proceed to avoid them or call them out on their behaviour.

However, one instance in which committing an FAE can have real and direct consequences for you personally is in the realm of romance.

A faux pas doth not make a monster

Let us return to our lovelorn protagonist and her slightly overzealous (read: aroused) male suitor, who has now been blocked and erased from her digital existence.

As a relationship psychologist, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that addressing fundamental attribution errors is almost a day-to-day occurrence in my job. They are more common than you might think. However, a lack of understanding of what they really are can actually harm people in ways they’re never even aware of.

Think about it from his perspective for a moment. He’s excited, buzzing, fascinated by this beautiful lady who has burst from the blue into his life. The flirtation is electric, stimulating, all-encompassing. He can’t get her off his mind.

He decides to move things up a gear. In the heat of the moment, he taps out a new message. Send. He sits backs and waits.

Seconds later, the scene couldn’t look more different. The poor chap is desperately trying to cancel the message, but it proves an unstoppable force of nature, evading his grappling thumb and shooting off into the ether to destroy the chemistry he has been working so doggedly towards with Ms. Right.

He cannot believe what he has done, how stupid he’s been. And what’s worse, he knows that, on the other end, the lady of his affections will right now be committing an FAE, mentally deconstructing his character and instantly writing him off as nothing but a bad’un.

Would things be different if she knew of his anguish? What if he was, after all, right for her, and just made a stupid mistake?

The simple solution to fundamental attribution errors

When we judge someone’s behaviour, we inevitably only see part of the equation. We don’t know what’s going on in their head, and this is especially true when we don’t know them from Adam. There’s always another side.

I’m not saying it’s okay or even logical to forgive a random guy of an unsolicited phallic image or some awful, sleazy comment a propos of nothing. But before you go blocking someone with whom you’ve felt genuine sparks, try to picture their situation. What were they thinking? Sure, the problem may have been exactly that: they weren’t thinking. Think about the times in the past, have you accidentally embarrassed yourself, yearned for the ground to open up and swallow you after humiliating yourself (or at least feeling like you did)?

Be aware of fundamental attribution errors. And take it from me: even the best of us can mess up. When any of the most eligible and exceptional clients have emailed me at 4am bemoaning a faux pas they committed three weeks ago, since which they have not heard back from the one they thought was… The One. I often wonder what would happen if their love interest could just see the anguish, the emotional turmoil… Perhaps they’d think twice about their fundamental attribution error.

If you’re in need of a little guidance when it comes to love, romance and dating, Maclynn (formerly Vida) can help. We are an international, multi-award-winning matchmaking agency with a network of only the most exceptional singletons stretching the world over. I myself, as Maclynn’s in-house relationship psychologist, have 15 over fifteen years’ experience helping individuals overcome the barriers we so often put up that prevent us from achieving true happiness in our relationships. My coaching sessions will help you truly understand how to get the most out of romance, and what changes to your communications would help you not be so quick to judge and write people off. The results might just astonish you.

If you’re single and looking for love or in a relationship and in need of a little expert advice,get in touch with Maclynn today and book in one of our renowned coaching sessions. Let us reinvigorate your relationship and equip you with communication skills you need to get the most out of love.

| 6 min read


About the Author

Madeleine Mason Roantree

Madeleine has over 15 years of experience in psychology, where she is trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Applied Positive Psychology. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Counselling Psychology, and is member of the British Psychological Society, the International Positive Psychology Association & Dating Industry Professionals Network.

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