Intent vs. Impact! Or, the Fundamental Attribution Error

“People are pretty much alike. It’s only that our differences are more susceptible to definition than our similarities.”  ~ Linda Ellerbee

This and next week, I’m taking my turn on the other side of the classroom, taking a 40-hour mediation training class, 8:30am-5:30am. Doing so, I’ve swiftly been reminded that learning is exhausting.

A concept that came up the other day is one that I couldn’t not write about here because it’s so crucial for effectively interacting with others. In class, we referred to is as “intent and impact,” or “intent and perception,” which in my notes I immediately geekily translated as “fundamental attribution error.” No matter the name, it’s a root cause of so many misunderstandings.  [There’s also an important conversation happening about intent vs. impact in terms of racist and sexist (micro-)aggressions, which is worth it’s own post and we’ll investigate it elsewhere.]

Basically, the idea here is that we tend to assume negative intentions for other people’s actions, while assuming positive ones for our own. We conveniently forget this inconsistency when gauging the impact of others’ actions on ourselves.

A crucial element of this is that we attribute the cause of events differently depending on who they’re happening to. For instance, when you’re late, I attribute it to you not planning ahead, being unorganized, lazy, etc., all of which would be under your control.  However, when I’m late, I attribute it to unavoidable traffic, unexpected weather, or perhaps other people taking more of my time than usual – all things outside of my control.

The flip slide is also true: When you receive that promotion or take first place, the automatic assumption I make is “wow, you sure are lucky,” or  perhaps “you were in the right place at the right time.” This time the locus of control for the good event is external, not in your control, simply a case of outside forces happening to work in your favor. When it’s me getting a promotion or a win,  I assume it’s earned thanks to my hard work and skill, with the locus of control for the happy event being my own inherent personality traits.

We refer to is as a fundamental error because it’s a common and natural human cognitive habit. All of us start from a place of self-serving bias, in that our perception processes are generally biased in ways that positively serve ourselves.

Trust me, it’s not just you.

The crucial element is to recognize that it’s happening. When you find yourself blaming someone for doing what made total sense for you to do last week, pause. Take that moment to reassess whether maybe, just maybe, their reasons are the same as yours.

Shout Outs to …

Robin Amadei (founder of Common Ground Mediation), who’s teaching the 40-hour mediation training class. She’s done a fantastic job developing case studies and sharing experiences to offer an insightful and well-rounded class. She also figured out long ago that both learning and sitting in the same place for nine hours is exhausting, so not only feeds and caffeines us, but also wraps up every break with a quick Zumba session. Top of the list of things I’ve learned thus far: I have no rhythm.

A related shout out is to the mediation coaches who come by class to offer pointed feedback on our case study practices. And even bigger one to my 22 classmates whose realistic embodiment of hypothetical roles brings home how quickly a situation goes down the drain when we don’t recognize the fundamental attribution error at play.



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