Fundamental Attribution Error: An Exercise in Empathy

I want to tell you a story and then I want you to tell me if something similar has ever happened to you. Also, I totally know this doesn’t show me in a good light, but I’m totally fine with it because I know we all have things that irritate us and if you don’t then you lyin’, friend!


At my old office job, we had a very active group chat. When I started working there, we were using MOC (Microsoft office communicator) which later became Lync, which later became Skype for business. It was easiest to identify who in the group was talking by their font and text color. Mine was purple, thin and slanted while my work bestie’s was bold, red and tall. There was also one person on my team that I just didn’t like. This person always made the most offensive jokes and was always back door bragging. Every time I saw their green swirly font pop up in chat, I would automatically roll my eyes.

One day, my work bestie changed her font without telling me … and it was green and a little swirly… Can you guess what happened?

My work bestie started talking in the group chat and without blinking, I got to hating. I even copied and pasted her message to a private chat with me and my friend with a, “UGHHHH She’s so annoying!”

My friend replied:


And I realized… it was my friend that had been talking in the chat!

AND SUDDENLY, EVERYTHING SHE SAID WAS HILARIOUS AND TOTALLY FINE! The sarcastic comment she had thrown out was witty and fit in perfectly with her sassy personality whereas when I thought the other person said the same comment, it was in poor taste and completely tone deaf.

WHAT THE…?!?!?!?

Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you’re reading a text fight your friend had with her boyfriend and you mix up which one is which. Suddenly you’re nitpicking everything your friend says, thinking it’s her boyfriend. The spelling errors annoy you, “God, can’t he learn how to use your and you’re?!” until you realize…. oh….

This is called “Fundamental Attribution Error” (Thanks, Taylor!) and we are all guilty of it.

When you see someone texting in their car and you seethe because, “Look how irresponsible, he’s putting us all in danger!” but then moments later, you get a text and reply real quick because, “There’s really no one on the road and it’s just a one word reply.”

Or maybe you were irritated that Janice Marie Photography totally ripped off your new photo location. “Ugh. Be original, Janice Marie!” but you yourself totally copied that cute website menu you saw on someone else’s website last month. “She lives in a different state so we’re not really in competing markets…” you told yourself.

From the Utexas.Edu website:

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people. We’re inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.

Or, as my friend put it: Fundamental Attribution Error is when you get irritated when someone does something but then you give yourself grace when you do the exact same thing.

So this post is supposed to bring you an exercise in empathy… and here it is. When I was younger and someone would cut my mom off in traffic, I would scoff and say, “People are such jerks!” and my mom would reply, “We don’t know why he did that. Maybe he just got a call that his wife is in the hospital and he’s trying to get to her.”

So there it is. Make excuses for the other person. So often we create a story around someone who does something we don’t like… and I’m suggesting we do the same thing… only the story we create is in their favor… you know, like we do for ourselves all the time!!

Knowing that Fundamental Attribution Error is a thing and being able to identify it has made me a more empathetic person. Putting into practice the exercise above has made me a more empathetic person. And right now, we are living in a world that is increasingly impatient and irritable… so I hope you’ll find a space to put this into practice and see if it has a positive impact on your life too!

I’d love to know if you have a scenario like mine above because I know I can’t be the only one something like this has happened to! Let me know in the comments or find a secret message on my home page and send me a secret message back! I’d love to hear from you!

Denise Karis is an Arizona photographer who enjoys musicals, Doctor Who and breakfast burritos. IG @denisekaris