Feb 21

Just How WEIRD is the FAE?

Every student of social psychology is at some point introduced to the fundamental attribution error (FAE). The term was coined in 1977 by Lee Ross to explain common misattributions (Ross, 1977). Ross noted that participants tend to attribute motivation to mostly internal factors, ignoring potential external factors. Psychologists have no doubt that both internal and external factors influence our decision making, but attributions tend to favor the internal, creating a correspondence bias. If true, the relevance of the FAE cannot be questioned, as all research should strive to be as unbiased as possible. Yet, is the FAE itself a biased misconception?

We will come back to the question at hand, but first let’s get weird. The term “WEIRD” was originally used by Henrich and Heine, referring to Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. Their findings could radically shift the world of research, as it was found that 80% research participants are WEIRD, while representing only 12% of the human population (Azar, 2010). This finding means that the majority of research is only applicable to around an eighth of the world population. But what does this mean for the FAE?

Studies have shown the FAE is more common in individualist cultures than in collectivist cultures (Mason & Morris, 2010). Western cultures tend to be more individualist, so on this front the FAE is WEIRD. Research using more diverse populations must be completed on the FAE to determine the effects of education, industrialization, wealth, and government structure on the concept. It is quite possible that the FAE is not “fundamental” at all. The concept of making errors in attribution might itself be incorrectly attributed to human nature rather than to WEIRD societies. 

The WEIRD problem necessitates reflection on previously accepted psychological concepts. It brings forth the importance of something often all too ignored in research: diversity. Diversity across genders, races, and cultures is vital for any research study. The FAE becomes much more interesting if it is truly universal. Without universality of concepts, how are we to understand universal human nature?


Azar, B. (2010, May). Are your findings ‘WEIRD’? Monitor on Psychology, 41(5). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/05/weird

Mason, M. F., & Morris, M. W. (2010). Culture, attribution and automaticity: a social cognitive neuroscience view. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5(2-3), 292–306. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq034

Ross, L. D. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). New York: Academic Press.

Feb 19

What constitutes a “jerk”?

“It’s happening at 8:30 tomorrow morning” my husband told me without preamble when we called me on his way home from work last night. He did not even have to explain the “it” he was referring to; I knew immediately that the “jerk” he works with was finally being fired. I felt a sense of relief that my husband would no longer have to deal with this person who had made his work so much more frustrating, but I also felt sad. Sad for the individual being let go as well as the person tasked with doing the firing. It was a difficult situation.

As I lay in bed last night wishing I could just fall asleep instead of dreading what was going to happen in the morning I found dozens of question swirling around my head. There was one in particular that I kept coming back to. Does behaving like a jerk translate into someone actually being a jerk? No, I concluded. Just because someone acts like a jerk it does not automatically make them a jerk. But then how do you decide when you need to separate yourself from someone versus try to help them deal with a difficult situation in a better way?

When I listened to the interview of Dr. Bob Sutton at Stanford University, I was absolutely in agreement with his ideas of dealing with and reducing our contact with “jerks” in the workplace. This morning though, I find myself still wondering how we get to the point of slapping the label of “jerk” on someone.

It seems like a prime example of the fundamental attribution error to label someone as a “jerk” instead of attempting to understand what caused them to react in a negative way. But perhaps it’s not that simple either; I do believe that some people are predisposed to be mean no matter the situation they find themselves in.

To gain better clarity I took a deeper look at the attribution process and in particular at Kelley’s (1973) covariation model. According to Kelley, we can estimate whether the root cause for someone’s behavior is internal or external by determining levels of the following (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012):

  • Distinctiveness – Is this behavior unique to this situation?
  • Consensus – Are others behaving in this same way in this situation?
  • Consistency – Is this typical behavior for this situation and person?

This method can help us determine if the behavior stems from an out-of-character reaction to an external situation or if the behavior should be attributed to internal personality/character factors.

So then, should we default to labeling someone a jerk if it turns out that the behavior stems from internal factors? I think not, and I think it can even be detrimental to the individual being labeled. I believe that the average person who is labeled a jerk is aware of the stigma they carry. They usually know that they rub people the wrong way and that others don’t like them. While some may seem to be jerks down to their souls, could this be a self-fulfilling prophecy in others? The jerk knows they are disliked but perhaps they don’t think they have the power to change who they are. As a result, they don’t attempt to better themselves and instead write off their membership in the jerk club to innate and unchangeable personality deficits; the “jerk” lives up to the label.

Instead of labeling people we should focus on describing their behavior. Rather than calling someone a jerk, we could say that they responded inappropriately. Thus, it would be easier to detach the behavior from the character of the person. It would allow the person to still see themselves as “good” and choose to view their bad behavior as an exception rather than defining them.

In the workplace, perhaps we could identify the behaviors that we are wishing to encourage instead of focusing on the behaviors that we want to abolish. Instead of saying “no jerks allowed” we could institute a mandate that requires that employees always respond with kindness. The emphasis would be on promoting positive behaviors instead of labeling people by their behaviors, good or bad. I propose that by discouraging bad behaviors, instead of condemning individuals, we could have success changing the way people handle difficult situations.



Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bob Sutton (Stanford University) – The No Jerk Rule | Stanford eCorner. (2007). Retrieved from https://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcast/the-no-jerk-rule/

Oct 17

Team Dynamics in Survivor

While scrolling through channels on the TV one evening this week, I stumbled across one of my favorite shows, Survivor.  As I settled into watch, I realized how perfectly Survivor illustrates many of the concepts of teams and organizations.  We can see how the producers manipulate the group development process, how the fundamental attribution error influences players, and how group decision-making concepts effect how the game plays out.

I think one of the things that makes Survivor so interesting and drama-filled is the fact that, especially in the beginning, they force the tribes, or teams as I will call them here, to stay in the forming and storming stages of Tuckman’s developmental stages of groups.  According to Pennsylvania State University (2017), these are the stages where the teams get together and get to know one another politely and then begin to attempt to sort out their roles with much intragroup conflict, respectively.  As soon as the teams begin to enter the “norming” stage, where roles are figured out and groups are beginning to operate more efficiently, the producers of the show randomly switch up the groups and force the contestants to start all over.  I think the prevention of moving onward into the performing stage of Tuckman’s stages is part of what makes Survivor so interesting.  As viewers, we never get to see teams work seamlessly together, but we do get to see the repeated formation and conflicts that come with the initial stages of team development.  While not ideal for creating effective teams, this makes for wonderfully drama-filled team dynamics for us as viewers.

We also see a lot of examples of the fundamental attribution error in Survivor.  As the contestants on the show get to know one another and figure out who they want to form alliances with or work against, there are many instances where constants will attribute another person’s actions or attitudes to that person’s personal disposition.  Later, we viewers often see interviews with that person, who will explain their actions or attitudes as responses to a situation.  We often hear comments along the lines of “I’ve never been outside of my city before, so this is really different” or “I just lashed out because I’m so tired/hungry/stressed”.  As Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012) note, the fundamental attribution error involves people attributing another’s behavior or attitudes to their personal demeanor, rather than taking situational factors into account.  As we see in the case of Survivor, these fundamental attribution errors play a major role in how contestants view one another and select alliance members.  If contestants attributed behaviors appropriately, it is possible that alliances could be different and the entire game could proceed in an entirely new way.

Finally, viewers can definitely see both normative and informational influences at play in decision making in Survivor.  For example, alliances are an important part of the game of Survivor, with members of groups banding together to ensure their “survival” in the game.  Often, a majority of a group will decide to work against a certain individual and, even if others disagree, they do not want to go against this majority group and make themselves a future enemy.  This, according to Schneider et al. (2012), is an example of the pressure to conform influencing decision making, or the normative influence.  On the other hand, situations in Survivor often occur where an individual is certain they will vote a certain way but then discover information from other group members that changes their perception of the situation, often leading to a change in their vote.  This is a perfect example of informational influence, where information from others provides a person more information about a social situation (Schneider et al., 2012).  The work of both of these group decision-making factors makes for interesting dynamics in this game, as we watch contestants grapple with both informational and normative pressures.

It is fascinating to me to see how so many aspects of group and organizational social psychology can be seen in something as mindless as a reality TV gameshow.  After realizing this about Survivor, there are so many more identifiable layers to the game.  I thought I enjoyed watching it before, but after having a more complete understanding of social psychology, it makes watching it even more interesting!



Pennsylvania State University. (2017).  Organizational Life AND Teams. [Online Lecture].  Retrieved from http://cms.psu.edu.


Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Feb 17

Attributing Blame By: Kristen Jezek

Attributing Blame
By: Kristen Jezek

I used to think I was a pretty great judge of character. In fact, when I saw someone cut a person off in the middle of the road, I thought I could make a pretty sound judgement on the type of person they were. After all, we all hate it when we’re cut off in traffic, it’s dangerous for goodness sake! Spending time in New York City could make you think it was almost your birthright to put judgments on the people you drove by on the street. However, fundamental attribution error and actor-observer difference suggest that our judgments about ourselves, others and motivations for behavior may not be so accurate after all.
The fundamental attribution error states that when judging other people’s behavior, we will tend to overestimate their behavior caused by their personal qualities or demeanor, and underestimate the influence of external factors on their actions (Schneider et all, 2012). Furthermore, the actor-observer difference explains our personal bias in ranking our own behavior due to external circumstances, rather than a judgement of our personal character (Schneider et all, 2012). These two theories and explanations of human behavior have a humbling effect on the girl who used to think she could judge a book by its cover.

“OH MY GOSH WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?!”, I screamed as I slammed on my brakes while moving out of my New York City apartment. Immediately I went on a tirade of how bad New York drivers were and how inconsiderate they could be for drivers like me on the road. Not even five minutes later, as my navigation system chimed “Turn left NOW” did I find myself swerving in a manner so characteristic of the person I just yelled over, I could have been doing a re-enactment of the previous scene. Multiple cars honked at me and I winced as I merged onto the freeway on-ramp, only to sit there in more traffic, surrounded by the very cars I had just cut off. “I can’t believe they’re looking at me like this, the navigation system didn’t even tell me to turn until the last second and I have no idea where I’m going—they should cut me some slack”. There I was, living proof of both the theories I just explained. When the car in front of me first cut me off I was sure it was a testament to his poor driving skills and the lack of consideration of “New Yorkers” (which, by the way, I also was). I made the fundamental attribution error on my fellow-driver and assumed that he knew where he was going and he purposefully cut me off, regardless of circumstance. Not even five minutes later, when I made my own driving snafu, I was quick to attribute my actions to outside circumstances, effectively rendering myself innocent, a la the actor-observer difference. I knew my circumstances were innocent enough, and I did not want to label myself a bad or inconsiderate driver. After all, the roads in New York are often one-way and if you miss your exit, you could be stuck in traffic for another hour trying to get back to it!

What were the implications of this experience? The humility that comes with the knowledge that you are not perfect and that other people may not be either. Life is a complicated series of moving parts and often there is more to it than meets the eye. This experience, the knowledge of the fundamental attribution error, and the actor-observer difference keeps me on my mental toes when anything doesn’t go as planned or people do not behave as I expect them to. This change affects how I treat myself and others on the road, in the doctor’s office, and in basically every human interaction. After all, surprises can happen anywhere.

The fundamental attribution error suggests that perhaps in our finite wisdom, we often place others on a higher standard than we place ourselves and attribute their misgivings to their personal faults rather than their outside environment. However, the actor-observer bias is an effect of us cutting ourselves slack, or perhaps innocently, just seeing more of the picture and attributing mistakes to outside forces beyond our personal integrity. The awareness of these two theories can be a powerful and humbling weapon in underestimating your fellow-man and overestimating your own circumstances. Perhaps if more people understood this, the world could be a kinder, more forgiving place.

1) Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.

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