Fundamental Attribution Error

Imagine this…

You’re having the Monday of all Mondays.

It feels like everything is going wrong and there isn’t enough caffeine in the world.

When it’s finally lunch time, you dance your way to the kitchen excited for a much-needed break.

You’re rummaging through the fridge when you get a ping on your phone. 

Shoot! It’s a reminder for a Zoom meeting with a freelancer you just hired that’s supposed to start… right now! 

You glance at your lunch as it sits disassembled on the counter, sigh, and run to your desk to hop on Zoom. Your stomach drops when you click your Zoom icon, and it automatically starts downloading the latest version.

“Not right now!” you think as you sit helplessly waiting for the update to finish.

Two minutes later you’re finally in, making you 4 minutes late for the call.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” you think to yourself while entering the Zoom room… only to find that you’re the only one there.

“Wait, the freelancer is late too?!” you think to yourself. “Well, this isn’t a good sign. They mustn’t be very reliable.”

Another minute passes and your frustration grows. When the freelancer finally joins the call—now 5 minutes late—you’re visibly annoyed.

Why do you forgive yourself for being late yet judge the freelancer so harshly for the same mistake?

In today’s edition of Why We Buy, we’re exploring Fundamental Attribution Error (or FAE as we psychology geeks call it) – why we judge other people on their character and ourselves on the situation.

Let’s get into it…

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The Psychology of Fundamental Attribution Error 🧠

The term was coined by Lee Ross some years after the now-classic experiment by Jones and Harris. Ross (1977) argued in a popular paper that the Fundamental Attribution Error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.

We tend to see others as internally motivated and responsible for their behavior.

→ If they’re late to a meeting that tells us everything we need to know about them.

Yet when we judge ourselves we look at the whole picture.

→ It’s not a big deal that you forgot about your meeting. And it’s not your fault Zoom decided to install a new update.

By default we judge others based on what little information we can pull from the situation.

Even though we may lack more detailed information about what causes their behavior, we still feel totally equipped to make the judgment.

And unfortunately for marketers, the Fundamental Attribution Error applies to our judgment of brands, too.

Inside Your Buyer’s Mind🧐

When your buyers make a mistake, they chalk it up to the situation:

“I sent that email with a typo because I didn’t have my morning coffee yet.”

“I couldn’t send out my package of returns because there was too much traffic.”

“I haven’t called them back because I didn’t expect my kid to come home sick from school.”

But when your brand makes a mistake, buyers directly judge you:

“Wow, I can’t believe they sent that email with such a big typo in it. Their marketing team must be lazy.”

“Why hasn’t my package arrived yet?! This company doesn’t prioritize their customers.”

“They haven’t called me back which means they’re unorganized.”

Fundamental Attribution Error links mistakes to brands’ characters instead of the scenario. 

But, don’t let Fundamental Attribution Error make you nervous to click “Publish” on your next newsletter or social media post.

With the right strategies, you can use this cognitive bias to create positive and memorable brand experiences.

How To Apply This 🤑

Alright, so how can we apply this right now to sell more?

If you make a mistake, own it, but explain what happened

Show your buyers—or team—the whole picture, so they understand exactly what happened. This allows them to judge the situation and realize it was an honest mistake. It’s harder for them to judge your character when they know the real reason behind the mistake.

Based on customer feedback, Intelligent Change realized their notebooks weren’t holding up. The team sent all the customers who had recently made a purchase an email explaining what happened, why it happened, and what to do if they experienced the issue.

This transparency boosts brand confidence. It makes buyers feel confident purchasing from Intelligent Change again knowing that if something goes wrong they’ll make it right.

Give others the benefit of the doubt

We’re bringing this back to elementary school days and reminding you of the Golden Rule: treat others how you’d like to be treated. Be careful judging brands, team members, or clients until you can understand the context of the situation.

Remember that you’re naturally inclined towards judgment. Recognizing that you’re prone to Fundamental Attribution Error, you can try to quiet that judgemental voice in your head and try to understand the broader picture.

Find ways to humanize your brand and build affinity

Mistakes happen. But customers will be more willing to overlook the odd hiccup if they already like and trust your brand.

Look for ways to deepen the connection with customers. That could mean giving them a free drink on their birthday, like Starbucks does, or even sending a personalized video to customers thanking them for their purchase or welcoming them to your email list.

Tools like Maverick make it easy to send personalized videos at scale using AI. In fact, the reason why Maverick is sponsoring today’s issue of Why We Buy is because Eitan, the founder, sent me this personalized message:

We covered the power of using Names in your marketing in a previous issue of Why We Buy, so once I saw how the Maverick worked, I knew my readers would love to learn about it. 

The takeaway? If your brand consistently goes the extra mile to delight customers, they’ll likely be more forgiving when you make a mistake.

The Short of It 💥

When people or brands make mistakes, people can be quick to cast judgment. 

Fundamental attribution error can push buyers to see mistakes as character flaws rather than unfortunate situations—even when buyers have made similar mistakes themselves.

When a mistake evidently does happen, it’s best to own it and explain what happened. When you’re transparent with people—your customers, team, etc.—and work to earn their trust upfront, they’ll be more forgiving.

So, show them.

Until next time, happy selling.



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Written By Katelyn

Katelyn Bourgoin is the CEO of Customer Camp, a 4X founder, and a cheese lover. She lives by a simple mantra: whoever gets closer to the customer wins.

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