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Why We Blame Others but Not Ourselves

The psychological phenomenon known as fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to locate the cause of mistakes outside ourselves yet blame others personally. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Psychologists have long observed that people assign very different causes to human behavior, depending on whether you are explaining your own actions or the actions of someone else. The phenomenon is called fundamental attribution error and works like this: When you lose your house keys, you have a tendency to locate the cause outside yourself—a busy work schedule, plain bad luck, etc. But when your partner loses his or her keys, our tendency is to explain the error in terms of their personality—they are disorganized, they are forgetful, etc. So what motivates us to explain the same exact event in such different terms?

What’s the Big Idea?

While assessing cause and effect is natural behavior, it is more complicated than it sounds. Imagine someone sleeping under a tree. A leaf falls from a branch and lands on their forehead. The person awakes saying “Yikes!” We might assume the leaf woke the person, but perhaps an ant bit their arms, or perhaps they are awaking from a nightmare. In philosophical parlance, the cause of an event is an assumption, not a thing in itself. “The mystery is not that people become the focus of our reasoning about causes, but how we manage to identify any single cause in a world of infinite possible causes.”

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