("Fundamental Attribution Error" is a term first coined by Ross, 1977)
This node is designed to complete the words of Artfuldodger who posted the first node on this topic. I shall try to explain things from in a different light.
When people explain the behaviour of others, they tend to overestimate the role of personal factors and overlook the impact of situations. We interpret the actions of other people as a sign of / or as resulting from an internal disposition or trait (personal causes). However making such an interpretation almost always underestimates the impact of the external environment (situation causes) and places too much responsibility for the behaviour on the individual him/herself.
People fall prey to the fundamental attribution error even when they are fully aware of the situation's impact on behaviour. In one experiment (Miller et al., 1981), participants themselves were directed to take position on a given topic and write an essay. They then swapped essays and rated each other.
Result: they jumped to conclusions about each other although they knew that the essay-writer had not chosen his stance on that issue! (A typical example would be pro/con Fidel Castro, etc…)
WHY do we jump to conclusions about people on a simple behavioural whim?
Gilbert and Malone (1995) expose that the problem stems (in part!!) from how we make attributions. It used to be assumed that people survey all the evidence and then decided on either a personal or a situational attribution. Instead, it now appears that social perception in a two-step process: first we identify the behaviour and make a rapid personal attribution; we then later correct or adjust that inference to account for situational influences. The first step is simple and automatic, like a reflex; and second requires attention, thought and effort… (this is supported by the fact that people are less likely to commit the fundamental attribution error when they take time before making their judgements, when they are highly motivated to be careful and accurate or when they suspect the target had ulterior motives for his/her behaviour)
The fundamental attribution error is a pinnacle of psychological understanding. Think about your life… how many times have you attributed someone's bad mood to them being grumpy/aggressive/unfriendly, rather than telling yourself they hadn't had breakfast/exams/etc… -trust me, you do this all the time.
An interesting thought is that our western culture actually "teaches" us to commit the fundamental attribution error: we believe that individuals are indeed individuals, i.e. Autonomous, motivated by internal forces and responsible for their own actions. (studies found that among young children of different culture, there was no differences, with increasing age, however, Americans made more personal attributions, whereas in collectivist cultures, people made more situational attributions)
Of course the fundamental attribution error is not as simple as exposed here, but if you surf into this node, try to remember this topic as it can save many a friendship/relationship!