The Fundamental Attribution Error

Sep 23, 2023

The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to (wrongly) attribute the behaviors of others to internal, personal characteristics and our own behaviors to external, situational factors. For example, if someone is late, we think they are lazy. If we are late, we think we were delayed.

It’s one of the most important cognitive biases to keep in mind. Some examples of how it shows up in startups, engineering, and product.

  • Bugs. When others create a bug, they are bad developers. When we create a bug, the codebase is already primed for failure.
  • Deadlines. When others miss a deadline, they are not good at managing their time and work. When we miss a deadline, it’s because of an unrealistic estimate or external dependency.
  • Hires. When team members suggest candidates, they are biased because they worked with them before or went to the same school. When we suggest a candidate, it’s because we know they will be a good fit because we’ve worked with them before or went to the same school.
  • Strategy. When the company makes a strategic move that we disagree with, it’s because of the personal biases of the decision-maker. When we make a strategic move that doesn’t work out, it’s because we were dealt a bad hand.