Fundamental Attribution Error in Divorce Mediation


  • Author Shane F. Loomis
  • Published May 27, 2024
  • Word count 647

The fundamental attribution error is “the tendency to spontaneously attribute the behavior of others to internal, personal characteristics, while ignoring or underestimating the role of external, situational factors.” Hockenberry & Nolan, Discovering Psychology (8th Ed. 2019). It “refers to an individual's tendency to attribute another's actions to their character or personality, while attributing their behavior to external situational factors outside of their control. In other words, you tend to cut yourself a break while holding others 100 percent accountable for their actions.” Fundamental Attribution Error: What It Is & How to Avoid It, Business Insights. Harvard Business School Online June 8, 2017.

This attribution error concept is highly applicable in any dispute setting. When one party analyzes the motivations of the other, they often will attribute evil and malicious intent to the “other” while declaring innocent victim status for themselves. The distrust in the other party’s motivation can convert a process of “finding solutions to a problem” into “beating or outwitting” the other side. Anyone who has been in a dispute with a sibling can recall a time when a solution was rejected solely because it was proposed by the sibling.

A distrust of the motivations of others can have serious consequences on dispute resolution. The goal is to foster creativity in problem solving. Parties who feel aligned to attack the problem are more creative and more open to solutions than parties who perceive the problem as getting as much as they can from the untrustworthy “other” party.

In divorce situations, parties often begin with a belief that the only way to survive is to get as much as possible of the family’s assets at the expense of the other party. A divorce often devolves into a question of “how much” the one party will receive as a dollar amount of the estate and in terms of support. However, this perception completely ignores opportunities that arise in a cooperative process.

A recent conversation with my daughter about some tension among her college roommates demonstrates this issue. My daughter takes a full course-load, works in a food-service job, is involved in a remote internship, takes an active leadership role in her sorority as well as serving as a sweetheart for a fraternity. At times, her roommates have interpreted her statements that she is unavailable because she is “so busy with x, y, and z” as either one-upmanship about who is working harder or as an excuse not to participate in social or roommate functions. They potentially incorrectly attribute her statements to an internal negative assessment of their lives rather than a personal assessment of her own ability to handle her external, situational factors. As a result, they feel disrespected or attacked.

My daughter has a role in this exchange. Recognizing that her roommates feel her responses listing tasks are competitive, she could instead focus her statements on how she is overwhelmed by her tasks. In presenting information about her status, it is important she does not imply that they are not overwhelmed or that they are not busy but focus her statements on her own situation. For example, “I am really struggling with a class” or “I am struggling with a project at work.” These statements assess how she is coping with parts of her world without making comparative statements about her roommates. Her tasks overwhelm her, not in comparison to anyone else, but in the context of her own capacity.

In addition, with direction and empathy, her roommates can be encouraged to consider the external situational factors that drive my daughter’s responses. To consider how they might respond when feeling overwhelmed in their own lives and to consider whether my daughter’s statements are judgmental of them or informational about herself.

In dispute situations, knowledge of the fundamental attribution error allows us to reframe our communications to prevent triggering others into a challenge of motivation and stay focused on solutions.

I am a mediator in Southern California. I work with families seeking to transform the structure of their families while reducing the amount of trauma caused by the transformation. I have more than 18 years of experience with dispute resolution in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Shane F. Loomis

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