Fundamental Attribution Error

Pyschology and UX are very closely related.  How do people act?  What do they think?  How do they decide?  To be a great UX Designer, you must understand human psychology as a core aspect of your craft.  One interesting psychological phenomenon is called Fundamental Attribution Error.  Take the following two examples:

If you are late for an appointment, you might drive quicker or a little less conservative.  You wouldn’t say you are a bad driver, but rather the situation demanded a modification of your behavior.  However, if you see a driver in front of you driving too fast or change lanes too quickly, you will think, “What a terrible driver!”  When faced with our own behavior, we take context into account.  In others, we hardly ever do.

A politician takes a stance on a particular issue.  After hearing from several experts, he changes his stance to one that is more consistent with the new learned facts.  His opponents call him a flip-flopper whose opinions will sway in the wind.  They will say the politician has no principles.  What seems to be perfectly normal behavior (learning and evolving your opinion) is ridiculed and considered a political weakness.  This is the same error as the driver, but with much more severe consequences.  Politicians are loathe to change their minds about anything.

An interesting experiment would be in the use of social media as a vehicle for customer complaints.  If a user has an error in the system, do they blame themselves or the system?   Let’s imagine they tweet that the error occurred.  Would the reader of the tweet attribute the error to the system or the operator of the system?  Does it make a difference if the reader considers themselves advanced or novice in the system?  I’d love to see an experiment on this.

This psychological effect is also different in different cultures.  In the United States, we are a highly individualistic society.  In eastern cultures, the “collective” is often more important. In those eastern societies, they commit this error far less frequently.

For further reading try Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

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