Part 1 of a 4 Part Series on Critical Thinking

Often the first step toward improvement is awareness. As the flawed humans we are, our thinking is hampered by some pretty predictable errors. Today we’ll focus on two errors that are closely related and are often described somewhat interchangeably: The fundamental attribution error and the actor/observer bias.

First, let me tell you a story… Yesterday, on my way to yoga, I found myself growing annoyed by other drivers. Oftentimes, I view a green light as a racing flag, rapidly depressing the gas pedal of my sensible SUV just as that emerald circle pops to life. Yesterday, unfortunately, I noticed that other drivers did not share my eagerness to move ahead, instead, they chose to ooze in to the intersection like a bunch of confused slugs who couldn’t figure out which flowers they were supposed to be ingesting. In that moment, I began what’s called a causal search (1). In other words, my brain was screaming, “why in the name of Lord Voldemort are these people going so slow?”

When annoyed, and attempting to explain other people’s negative behavior, the search for an explanation usually begins by trying to figure out what is wrong with the other person. This is called an internal (1) attribution, which means that the explanation for that person’s behavior is formed based upon their personality, and fails to account for factors in the situation that could also be affecting their behavior. This error is often referred to as the fundamental attribution error (2).

Now, let’s fast-forward ten minutes into the story, when I myself failed to move quickly in response to a green light. Now, I have a very good reason for my own slower driving. I was, in fact, distracted by a weird hipster guy sprinting down the street with a bouncing ponytail and two armfuls of multi-colored plastic tubes. This explanation is an external (1) attribution, which means that I have found something in the situation that has nothing to do with me personally and that explains my unfortunate error.

By blaming my behavior on the running hipster I get away with my slow driving, but by blaming other people’s behavior on internal factors (e.g. being unmotivated), I paint them in a negative light, and ignore the potential for some other situational factor to be affecting their behavior (e.g. stress, a baby in the car, fatigue, etc.). This inconsistency in reasoning is referred to as the actor/observer effect (3). This tendency also pops up in our romantic relationships (4), leading us to be much harder on our partners when they screw up than on ourselves.

So, what’s the solution? It’s very simple, now that you're aware of such errors. Next time you find yourself annoyed with someone and trying to explain their bad behavior, consider something other than their personality. Ask yourself what difficulties they could be facing that could lead such undesirable behavior as driving slower that you would like. Be aware that there are unseen forces at play, and try to imagine a few of them. This will make you a better critical thinker and it will benefit your relationships by allowing you to be less judgmental of others.

For the record, I recognize the irony of experiencing rage-attacks en route to yoga and I have that knowledge because of my amazing critical thinking skills.



1. Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

2. 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. 174–221). New York: Academic Press.

3. Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

4. Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895-919.

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