Have you ever been in the car driving and someone cuts you off? Do you ever get angry? Do you ever say to yourself, “what an IDIOT!” Maybe you utter a few expletives instead. I think we have all done it at least once and probably more than we care to
admit, myself very much included. Let me ask you another question. Do you ever say to yourself, “that person is probably on their way to the hospital,” or “they must be late to work today.” I’m guessing you don’t say those types of things nearly as often as the first, if ever.
This is actually an example of a social psychology phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to make an internal attribution when it comes to someone else’s behavior instead of attributing their behavior to the situation (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, pg 76). There is also a tendency to attribute one’s own behavior to external causes and not internal (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, pg 76). Let’s take another look at the situation again using the fundamental attribution error.
When you get cutoff and call someone an idiot, that is an internal attribution. They cut you off because they lack the intelligence necessary to drive a car correctly. A lack of intelligence is an internal attribution. Something inherent in their personality caused them to behave in a certain way. If your inner voice tells you that the person is on their way to the hospital, that is a situational attribution. The person cut you off because of the situation they were put in.
There is also the other part to the fundamental attribution error. There is a tendency to attribute your behavior to external causes and not internal. To examine this aspect of the fundamental attribution error, let’s swap the roles in our story. You cut someone off in traffic on your way to work. You then say, “OH! They were in my blind spot!” In other words, your car blocked the view of traffic and caused your behavior. You have likely committed the fundamental attribution error again. When you attribute your behavior to an external cause (your car) and not to an internal cause this could be another example of the fundamental attribution error.
The last thing I will say from this example is next time someone cuts you off; remember that it could be the situation. And when we use our knowledge of social psychology to improve our everyday situation, it is a personal intervention (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, pg 62) and it is a valuable tool in life. It may stop you from getting so angry and it may make you a bit more forgiving (it continues to help me). After all, you might cut somebody off too if you were on the way to the hospital because of an emergency.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.