Do You Commit the Fundamental Attribution Error?

A 2002 study conducted by Brian Wansink at Cornell University found that if you give people at the movies massive quantities of popcorn, more than one person can eat alone, a person with a larger inexhaustible bucket of popcorn will eat 53% more than a person given a smaller inexhaustible tub of popcorn.
Without considering the varied bucket sizes, it would be easy to assume that some people are just massive over-eaters while others are more reasonable. One could worry about the over-eaters– their habits, health, and behavior. But looking more closely at the study, one realizes that the difference in quantities eaten is a proven result of the situation in which they were placed.
Those with larger popcorn buckets were transformed into “Popcorn-Gorging Gluttons” as a result of their circumstance. According to the Heath brothers, the co-authors of Switch, “What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem.”
Lee Ross, a social psychologist, defined the tendency to over-value individual personality factors as explanations for the observed deficiencies of others as the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” People are more inclined to attribute the behaviors of others to the person’s tendencies, personality, and characteristics without acknowledging the situation in which they operate.
On the other hand, people tend to over-value the influence of situation on their own behavior. As we conduct 360-degree feedback surveys and coach leaders on their results, we see this happen all of the time. Leaders explain their own deficiencies with comments like, “It’s because I have so much on my plate,” or “If the process were simpler, I would have the report done on time,” or “I can’t focus with fluorescent lighting.” People blame their own deficiencies on situation while blaming others’ deficiencies on the character of the individual.
When observing others, we tend to be blinded to the other factors that could be contributing to the problem. Often, issues with an employee are a result of their circumstances and not necessarily their weaknesses (though both may contribute). When working with others, be careful of characterizing an individual and generalizing their deficiencies. Analyze the situation and see if circumstances are part of the problem.
Maybe they were just given a ginormous tub of popcorn.
Do you take the time to find out if situation is the main cause of someone’s behavior?  Do you justify your own behavior based on a situation as opposed to your personality preferences? Please share an example when you discovered that someone’s behavior was largely driven by situation.

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