Fundamental Attribution Error

This post is sponsored by Narrative BI

Imagine this…

You’re having the Monday of all Mondays.

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

When it’s finally lunchtime, 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…

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.

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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 and 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 purchased 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.

Keep your buyers in the loop

Don’t assume your buyers know how difficult it is to add a new feature to your product.

They make you think it’s a simple fix when the reality is it’ll cost you $50,000 and 3 months of your developer’s time.

When people are left in the dark, they may assume you just don’t care. Notion uses a customer-facing roadmap to tell users what’s happening behind the scenes.

As Notion’s founder explains, “The point is to provide a general direction of where the ship is heading without tying yourself down to a storm.”

This general direction shows your buyers that you’re working on their requested updates.

And it reminds them that if those updates aren’t live yet… it’s the situation (and not the team’s incompetence). 

Put your mistakes on display to control the narrative

Oatly has dedicated an entire domain to all of their past mistakes (fckoatly.com).

They’ve realized that their buyers are judging them on their character. So, they’re rewriting who that character is.

Oatly’s making their character: a brand that’s not afraid to admit their mistakes and keep bringing them up even when the headlines have died down.

The transparency makes buyers like them more (one of Cialdini’s 6 ways to pre-suade) and feel like they can trust them more.

Explain your processes to clients

Service businesses are built on systems. It’s the only way to scale.

These systems make sense internally. But, externally, they may feel slow and clunky.

Don’t let your clients think it’s because your business is slow and clunky.

Tell them what’s going on behind the scenes.

Once they can see why you’re doing things a certain way, they can understand it’s situational…not a character flaw.

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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