- The fundamental attribution error involves assuming people do things because of who they are and overlooking situational factors.
- Blaming mistakes on people’s personality prevents us from moving forward and is unlikely to get a good response from others.
- Assuming good intentions, even after a mistake, can help partners avoid conflict and resentment.
Psychologists define the fundamental attribution error as our tendency to overlook the situation when explaining other people’s actions and instead assume that they did whatever they did because of who they are as a person (e.g., Flick & Schweitzer, 2021; Malle, 2006; Ross, 1977).
This happens often in relationships. When our friend, partner, co-worker, or child does something we don’t like, it’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that they did it deliberately because they’re inconsiderate, lazy, selfish, careless, insensitive, incompetent, etc. We may feel righteous in our criticism, but a personality explanation leaves us stuck. There’s no path forward if it’s just who they are. And the other person is unlikely to respond well to those kinds of accusations.
I argue that there’s a simple word that can ease this problem: Oops.
Notice the difference between these statements:
- “Oops, you left your dirty laundry on the floor” vs. “You left your dirty laundry on the floor. You're such a lazy slob!”
- "Oops, you forgot I had a meeting tonight" vs. "You forgot I had a meeting tonight. You're being passive-aggressive, as usual!"
- "Oops, you took the car on a long drive and didn't refill it, so now it's almost completely empty." vs. "You took the car on a long drive and didn't refill it, so now it's almost completely empty. You don't care about anybody but yourself."
I consider “oops” to be a very generous word. It erases blame. In a single syllable, I argue, it strengthens our relationship by affirming that we believe the other person has good intentions, even when they mess up.
“Oops” slows us down and reminds us not to jump to conclusions about someone’s personality when they make a mistake. It encourages us to consider the possibility of extenuating circumstances. Were they in a hurry? Were they distracted? Did something unexpected come up?
“Oops” cuts the mistake down to a manageable size. An “oops” is not a crisis; it’s an ordinary problem to be solved.
“Oops” is hopeful. It implies that the mistake is something you can move on from, not a sign of a permanent flaw in someone’s character.
“Oops” avoids putting other people on the defensive. It makes it easier for them to step forward and make things right, without having to come up with excuses or admit that they are a terrible human being. “Oops” puts us on the same side rather than against each other.
And maybe someone will say it back to you when, not if, you mess up.
Flick, C., & Schweitzer, K. (2021). Influence of the fundamental attribution error on perceptions of blame and negligence. Experimental Psychology.
Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: a (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895-919.
Ross, L. (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). Academic Press.