By Zachary Ulrich
The Fundamental Attribution Error In Mediation
Have you ever had someone blame you for something over which you had absolutely no control? If you’ve ever been late to a meeting, been framed by a sibling growing up, or otherwise haven’t lived under a rock your entire life, you know what I’m talking about. Why do people do this? Situations like these are due to a powerful psychological phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), and it pops up all the time in everyday life. While the FAE entails many things, the salient point here is that it describes human beings’ tendency to assume that someone’s behavior – especially when we disagree with or are negatively affected by that behavior – is due to that person’s personality or disposition, and not due to external factors or situations beyond their control. For example, say you’re late for a first date and the other person assumes that your tardiness is because you just don’t care enough, or because you lack punctuality. Further imagine that, in reality, you got stuck behind a huge accident on the freeway – you had absolutely no control over the situation – and your cell phone died unexpectedly so you couldn’t call. By the time you arrive to the restaurant, your date has made a judgment – indeed, they may have committed a FAE without knowing it. Your date has assumed you had control over the situation when you did not. It is important to note here that when someone assumes that you can control events they tend to become more offended, because they usually also assume that you didn’t personally care about or respect them. This scenario also exemplifies why first impressions are so psychologically important: When people have little information about others, they assume things based on initial words and actions. If your initial actions do not accurately reflect your personality or character, they will likely commit a FAE in assessing you.
The FAE has huge implications for not only our everyday lives, but also for many sources of conflict between mediating parties. Are you consistently late for dates? Do you normally go out of your way to ensure that your spouse knows how much you appreciate and care about them? When someone “commits” a FAE, they only have the context of the situation (i.e., your past behavior) by which to reevaluate their assessment (and thus, their potential “offense” from what you’ve done). Unfortunately, as humans we tend to only consider the “context” of actions when those actions are our own. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, but it’s a different story when judging others. And the story is no different in mediation: By the time a case crosses your desk as a mediator, more likely than not at least one of the parties (often, at minimum, the plaintiff) is wholly convinced that the dispute only exists because the other party did or did not do something to cause it. And they may be right! But as many experienced mediators know all too well, often the truth of a situation is secondarily important to how parties perceive it. Many times, parties will make up stories for themselves regarding the “fault” of a situation, and use their judgment of fault in order to legitimize their not reaching out to the other side, their unwillingness to compromise, and thus their determination to perpetuate the conflict. There are a lot of reasons why parties do this, and one very potent enabler of this process is the FAE parties apply when thinking about other parties’ actions.
I believe that it is incumbent upon conflict resolution professionals to be aware of and able to react to FAE thinking when we see it, and to understand that this kind of thinking produces assumptions and blame that can keep parties from ever considering settlement in the first place. For instance, perhaps a subcontractor did not meet a deadline but could not do so because the subcontractor’s main supplier delivered needed goods too late. If the contractor does not take the time to ask why the contract terms were not met, and no communication occurs, they are likely going to assume that the subcontractor had full control over the situation and thus that it was their fault. Sometimes, parties assume the other party “harmed” them and could have prevented it, even when they could not. As mediators we know too well that facts are often muddled, convoluted, incredibly complex, and laced with emotional biases – and therein lies the conundrum: When parties can possibly blame other parties for a negative experience or outcome, they tend to do so because the FAE leads us to assume that someone was always in control of events. All too often, blame lies somewhere in the middle of the dispute, and in mediations where parties might otherwise have an opportunity to openly communicate with one another and come to an understanding, all dialogue is instead focused on “blame” (i.e., liability) and thus what money must exchange hands for the dispute to end. This is especially true when parties do not have a previous personal or professional relationship: As with our hypothetical dispute between spouses, if parties do not have a previous context by which to judge the validity of their FAE, they are more likely to commit a FAE and assume the other side is to blame – regardless of the reality.
So as mediators, what can we do? Of course, one of our most fundamental responsibilities is to remain neutral, but there are instances where it is nonetheless beneficial for parties to be guided in fully examining the potential FAE’s they may have committed. It’s always better for a client to examine their stance in mediation than to enter trial and find out the hard way that there are perspectives they haven’t considered. Even more than saving my clients the time and money of trial, often full resolution is only possible by helping clients examine their thinking, re-assess their situation, and communicate with the other side as part of the process. In order to better remember how to break down my approach to potential FAE-related “roadblocks” in a dispute, I like to keep it simple and use the same acronym as the problem itself: “FAE.”