Bias Eraser #5: Fundamental Attribution Error

Raise your hand if you are guilty of any of the following:

  • You review a resume and determine that a candidate is probably not worth interviewing, because he appears to be a job hopper (e.g., short tenure with a couple of companies)
  • A candidate is late for an interview, and despite a good conversation, you can’t help but feel the person is ultimately unreliable
  • Even though you shouldn’t, you Facebook-check a candidate and see questionable content like party pictures that cause you to question her cultural fit
  • You end up favoring one candidate over another because one of them has ‘manners’ and sends you a “thank you” note while the other doesn’t

The Definition of Fundamental Attribution Error

Even if these exact scenarios don’t strike a chord, they all exemplify the same pervasive bias. It is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, and we all do it.

The Penn State Psychology Blog description defines it best: “The fundamental attribution error states that we often judge other people’s actions as a result of some faulty personal characteristic they possess while failing to recognize the variety of situational factors that could be causing their behavior (Schneider, et al, 2012).”

How Does Fundamental Attribution Error Work?

The fundamental attribution bias can work in a couple of ways:

First, we tend to believe that a single action speaks volumes about someone’s character, and we use that information to predict what we expect from them across all situations. As an example, if you meet a financial planner who takes great pride in their appearance, you may wrongly assume they will take the same care with your money. Ask Bernie Madoff how that works out.

Second, the fundamental attribution bias may cause us to evaluate while omitting external context. In other words, we reach hasty conclusions about someone's competence without understanding the situation in which they comparatively succeeded or failed.

What is Fundamental Attribution Bias in Hiring?

Research shows that even highly trained professionals like hiring managers promote candidates who perform better on easy tasks than those with inferior performance in harder tasks. In this case, they see performance as a static characteristic without considering the external situational context impacting performance. This has huge implications in candidate selection when two people appear equally successful at first glance (e.g., sales revenue generated), but veritably achieved their respective numbers under vastly different circumstances.

In all talent decision-making, bias leads us to make the wrong assumptions about people and their likelihood of success. In the absence of broader context, it is important not to mistakenly attribute to individuals what is actually our own speculation. When we are blind to the full picture, circumstances that result in erroneous surface-level appraisals can favor less competent individuals over those who overcome strenuous conditions.

How does the Fundamental Attribution Error Jeopardize Hiring?

Using our opening examples, let’s reflect on how the fundamental attribution bias may have led us astray:

  • The ‘job hopper’ had a toxic manager and took a new job just to survive. Rather than uncommitted, perhaps they were smart and resourceful.
  • Maybe the late candidate had genuine computer issues, ran into unexpected traffic, or stopped to help an old lady cross the road. These reflect bad luck or genuine altruism, not unreliability.
  • Concerning the other person’s social media appearance, you may not realize that the ‘party pictures’ are shots from her parents’ 50th anniversary. She may not be such a bad cultural fit after all.
  • And while that “thank you” note may seem to indicate more appealing manners, some people just weren’t raised to have an awareness of that one specific courtesy. But discrepancies in upbringing and cultural customs may not have any bearing on job success.

Minimize Fundamental Attribution Bias in 3 Steps

Biases like the fundamental attribution error can have devastating consequences on the quality and diversity of organizational talent. But there is good news. Here are some tips to minimize fundamental attribution bias:

  1. Introduce objective talent assessments early in your decision-making processes. These tools don’t make snap judgments about people based on single interactions or observations. At PerceptionPredict, we build predictive models based on the statistical relationship between many human characteristics and quantitative job performance. We step aside to let hard data inform decisions, not intuition.

  2. Find ways to formalize and structure your interviews. The most fruitful interviews present all candidates with the same questions. When it comes to eliminating fundamental attribution error, provide a standard way to score responses. Generate ratings based on job-related responses, not less relevant factors like being on-time, well-dressed, or quick to send a “thank you” note.

  3. Screen resumes later in the hiring process even if it feels uncomfortable. Sometimes resumes do more harm than good. Experience and skill certainly matter, but it’s best to review this information after you’ve already used a scientific assessment to objectively narrow your candidate pool. When used too early, those resumes are susceptible to cognitive biases like fundamental attribution error that exclude good people from fair opportunities.
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