Phenomenological Psychology

Phenomenological Psychology header image

Fundamental Attribution Error

August 4th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

No doubt one of the most interesting phenomena of social psychology is what has come to be known as the “fundamental attribution error.” Simply put this is the tendency to locate the causes of behavior in elements of a person’s character or personality rather than the situation in which the person finds herself/himself. In this respect it is the reciprocal of measures one might take to combat social influence (the subject of my last essay) – because according to the fundamental attribution error, any effort to rebuke the effect of social influence will fail to succeed.

The Psychological Novel

I would like to explore Fundamental Attribution Error in the context of the psychological novel (and one psychological novel in particular). A “psychological novel” predominantly develops its plot and characters by exploring their inner mental and emotional lives. Often this is done using an exfoliated internal “stream of consciousness” narrative. The protagonist makes observations, poses questions, devises answers and occasionally even comments on the process of doing so. It would not be entirely accurate to describe this strictly as a soliloquy because frequently entire dialogues are imaginal. We know of other inhabitants in the fictional world only by the proponent’s description of them. This creates the possibility of misapprehension. The heroine/hero’s world has objects and roles just like our shared world but we only see one aspect of it. Like all other closed-loop systems this contains within itself the possibility of entropy, decay and even madness.

Crime and Punishment

One of the best examples of a psychological novel is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, whom the novel is about, is tormented by moral anguish, mental distress and psychological turmoil. Thoroughly demented and adrift in a fevered haze Raskolnikov conceives and executes a plot to kill Alëna, an unscrupulous pawnbroker. He does so not just for her money but also to rid the world of a person whom he perceives to be a worthless, evil parasite. He is intoxicated by his own ideas. He believes he is above the law and that any outcome is justifiable if only because he willed it. He has no conscience and feels no guilt. He has the intellectual fortitude to deal with the ramifications of his crime but no insight into his transgressive features. Essentially he is a nihilist, living beyond the confines of structured society, beyond redemption (except possibly for his prostitute-girlfriend Sonya’s love for him when she follows him to Siberia). There comes a time when Raskolnikov finally confesses to the detective Porfiry, faked out in a way by Porfiry’s seemingly-clairvoyant insight into Raskolnikov’s internal struggle and by Porfiry’s skillful manipulation of Raskolnikov’s emotional vulnerabilities.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The concept of Fundamental Attribution Error was originated by Ross (1977). Since then a number of studies have endeavored to explain its underlying theory and dynamics. One of the best I have come across is Spilka et al. (1985) who describe Fundamental Attribution Error as a series of propositions as follows (I omit their detailed descriptions of each, multiple references and granular interpretations of supporting phenomena):

1. People seek to explain experiences and events by attributing them to causes – i.e. by “making causal attributions.”

2. Often, an event or experience has many possible and perhaps compatible causes, in which case the attributor’s task is to choose among them or rank them in terms of relative importance or causal impact.

3. In cases where the presumed causal agent is a human or human-like actor, attributions are frequently made to some enduring trait(s) or other characteristic(s) of the actor.

4. In cases where the presumed causal agent is an actor, attributions are frequently made to the actor’s reason(s) or intention(s).

Fundamental Attribution Error as Applied to Crime and Punishment

Here is how Fundamental Attribution Error applies to Crime and Punishment. There are several ways to interpret Raskolnikov’s behavior other than by reference to his intentions and subjective psychological states. From a psychodynamic Freudian perspective Raskolnikov’s superego is overwhelmed by his id. He is a victim of his base, instinctive impulses. From a Marxist perspective Raskolnikov is enmeshed in the impoverished circumstances of mid-19th century St. Petersburg. The root cause of his crime is economic. He is both oppressed by and rebellious against a politically-enforced power structure. From a Darwinian perspective Raskolnikov is an evolved primate with brain anatomy and neurochemistry little different from primitive man, who had to live by her/his wits at the risk of being prey instead of predator. From the perspective of the Judeo-Christian Tradition he is an unrepentant sinner, most likely in league with the devil. From Nietzsche’s perspective (the converse of the Judeo-Christian Tradition) he is an Ubermensch, flexing his muscles and will to power.

The important thing to note about each of these perspectives is none of them depend on Raskolnikov’s psychological composition. In this respect they avoid Fundamental Attribution Error, i.e. attributing Raskolnikov’s conduct to his intentions or internal mental state.

Problems with a Fundamental Attribution Error Interpretation

Logocentrism. They all however share an interesting problem, which is as follows. They offer a “privileged reading” of the text that simply “suits our purposes,” whereas “to be authentic in (our) postmodern condition” is “to admit the indistinguishable fictionality of all interpretive models” (Waugh, 2001, p. 304). Paul Ricoeur (1970) originated this critique of structural discourse. Any attempt to discern the meaning of a text hypothesizes a gap between its “real” meaning and its “apparent” meaning. Consequently, one believes the text “presents us with a challenge to believe that [its] true meaning … emerges only through interpretation” (Stewart, 1989, p. 296). We become “suspicious” of the text. What is required in order to alleviate this “hermeneutics of suspicion” is a radical critique of the very possibility of understanding and interpreting the text, to begin with (Gadamer, 1984, p. 73).

Freud, Marx and Darwin (among others) all engaged in this style of analysis. Each perpetuated singular world-views, inconsistent with the others. If they are inconsistent, then which one can be right; which one avoids Fundamental Attribution Error by articulating a cogent non-mental alternative theory of the character’s behavior? This argument now primarily is associated with Jacques Derrida (1967) and deconstructionism. “All these destructive discourses and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle” (Waugh, 2001, p. 354). None is transferable or for that matter even intelligible to any of the others. Rather than “adding up” to a composite whole, they “cancel each other out.” Derrida characterizes this as a “demand for narrative.” However, “No one inflection enjoys any absolute privilege, no meaning can be fixed or decided upon. No border is guaranteed, inside or out,” (1979, p. 87, p. 78).

Lest we view him only as a Continental upstart, Derrida’s theme has been echoed in the works of philosophers in the British-American academic community, such as Richard Rorty (1981). Says Rorty, both contemporary analytic (e.g., philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein) and continental philosophy (e.g., philosophers such as Martin Heidegger) offer “parallel deconstructions of philosophy’s traditional claim to privilege, to be the discipline that adjudicates the claims to knowledge advanced by the others.” There is “no such foundation to knowledge. Each discipline offers its own way of knowing, and philosophy should not place itself in a position of privilege vis-à-vis these ways of knowing” (Dasenbrock, 1989, p. 9).

Such a benignly deconstructionist approach particularly is appropriate for a book about a feral creature such as Raskolnikov. Max Weber averred that nature is blank – a tabula rosa, with universal and unconditionally valid laws. We then in turn impose culture onto it, and culture recursively makes us the types of beings we are. Different cultural perspectives best are regarded as typological categorizations or ways of parsing nature. We cannot derive an inherent meaning from the text. The resulting synchronic paradigm comes at the expense of the very plurality of interpretations, which deconstructionists relish. There always is something contradictory about mapping the open and unfolding processes of narrative on to static or circulating structures. A structuralist analysis of narrative (of the sort proffered by Freud, Marx or Darwin) is “like trying to account for a game of solitaire by demonstrating that the pack was organized into four suits of thirteen different values” (Connor, 2004, p. 64).

Intention. To this point I have pointed out a key flaw of Fundamental Attribution Error, which is that any kind of structuralist theory of the text is an inappropriate way to approach a psychological novel with the richness and complexity of Crime and Punishment. A second, related issue is the problem of Dostoyevsky’s “intent,” to the extent it is possible even to hypothesize such a state of mind. Under Derrida’s view the author cannot control the meaning of the text since it functions autonomously from authorial intention. A text can have multiple meanings, one of which might be intended, but none of which uniquely are compelled.

The influential philosopher and critic John Searle (who happened to be my advisor at Berkeley) has weighed in on this topic. In his influential debate with Derrida, Searle (1994) says there are two ways to interpret a text: one based on “literal sentence meaning” and another based on “speaker meaning.” Under the former, “the meaning of the text consists in the meanings of the words and sentences of which it consists.” The latter is “what the writer intends to mean” (within the confines of the language and background assumptions of which the text is a narrative). In this second sense, one must “insist on understanding the author’s intentions in understanding the text” (p. 652).

Searle invites us to consider a hypothetical case where one comes across a series of marks on a beach somehow comprising the words to a verse of Wordsworth’s poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” “[T]hese marks certainly look as if they constituted a sentence composed of English words,” but it isn’t necessary for them to have been produced intentionally (p. 649), unless they were. “[D]ifferent tokens of a sentence type can be uttered on different occasions with different intentions” (p. 658), some of which might be notoriously opaque (as with this particular example). These different approaches are not necessarily incompatible. They are not “competing answers to the same question, but noncompeting answers to quite different questions” (p. 655).

Searle can be read as supporting a structuralist program such as that offered by Freud, Marx or Darwin. If the meaning of the text can be derived from its words and sentences then it may cohere into a single, intra-textual perspective (subject to Derrida’s critique, which I just outlined). One also can appeal to the author’s overt statements and background for evidence as to what he or she meant. To flesh out such a position thoroughly one would have to be apprised of critical details of the author’s biography. Without delving into this issue further there are many correspondences between Dostoyevsky’s circumstances and Raskolnikov’s, even to the point where Crime and Punishment might be considered as a kind of autobiographical novel.

Phenomenological Psychology

I would like to suggest a resolution of the tension between a purely psychological approach and Fundamental Attribution Error by focusing on Raskolnikov’s adaptive skills in coping with his phenomenological world. His perplexing dilemma is best understood as a means of coming into attunement with his environment and the ecology of his situation. To some extent this approach avoids the ideological commitments entailed by a hermeneutics of suspicion yet still accounts for his complex inner life. If one views lived experience as a quest to articulate the meaning of one’s own being there is something profoundly paradoxical and inappropriate about undertaking an action that unilaterally forecloses that endeavor (Raskolnikov’s murder of Alëna and his resulting punishment of banishment to Siberia with its isolation and inability to pursue a meaningful life).

After Raskolnikov committed the crime there was nothing left for him to do. Spatially he caromed around St. Petersburg like a billiard ball, running into the most convenient obstacle until he became too bruised and battered to continue. Perhaps he wasn’t delusional in the psychological sense. Rather he simply was unable to comport himself within the structure of a complex social ecology. He was unable to cope in any meaningful way with the conventions and protocols imposed by culture and convention. He failed to reconcile himself to the environmental situation in which he found himself, even as he inhabited it and was a part of it. Not in the sense of “understanding” it or even having any insight into it; nor in the sense of “overcoming” it or improving himself or even maximizing his grip on it, however tenuous. He simply lacked the practical skills of how to navigate through life. He didn’t have what colloquially might be referred to as “common sense.” He could just as well be from another planet or an alternative universe. Everything makes sense there. It doesn’t, here.

What is flawed is not so much Raskolnikov’s inner mental state but rather the means by which he chose to express himself. Committing murder is conceptually anomalous. If the central feature of being human is that one is concerned with the meaning of one’s own being, then it is paradoxical if the outcome resulting from that process is the extinction of the very facility that makes it possible. Murder (and the resulting punishment of death or lengthy incarceration as in Crime and Punishment) is the outcome of a flawed coping strategy towards being-in-the-world. Committing violent crime isn’t the best way to address this disconnect. Rather one ought to re-direct her/his energies in order to achieve a better orientation vis-à-vis her/his environment, thereby pressing confidently into the future and responding to the prospects it offers. Life is an adventure, like a work of performance art or spatial theater. One is constrained by the world, even as one overcomes it and defines a personal style.

Raskolnikov had what best might be described as a hyperthymic temperament, exacerbated by their intelligence, energy, creativity and artistic impulses. Most likely he was neurochemically imbalanced. This undoubtedly disposed him to mood disorders, including depression and mania. He was not cognitively impaired. He was not self-absorbed or narcissistic. His actions were not even remotely intentional. Rather he was enmeshed in a set of circumstances entirely beyond his psychological control. Even as he was fully deployed and fully engaged, his orbit simply didn’t intersect with what others might consider as “normal.” Like a square peg to a round hole, he couldn’t “fit in.” He wasn’t like a chameleon because he couldn’t change color in order to adapt. He was more like a poikilotherm, functioning on instinct alone, regulating his body temperature by moving into the heat or shade. Not intuition – because that implies a level of introspection he simply didn’t have. He would not have been able to answer questions about his experiential framework. He would have been bewildered, almost like not understanding the language in which the question was posed. His response would have been similar to that of the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). He tries to respond to a question. Incapable of simply giving an answer, he has to scroll through a mental Rolodex of equally-implausible alternatives. His interaction with the world is thwarted due to lack of facility.

This distinction between opacity and transparency is the key to evaluating Raskolnikov’s modality for being-in-the-world. Like Jim Morrison of the Doors sang, “People are strange, when you’re a stranger” (The Doors, 1967). Morrison didn’t mean that one engages in an act of recognition and “knows” they are “strange.” One doesn’t identify them as strangers or even “other,” thus available for acceptance into or exclusion from one’s sphere of conceptual reference. They are like apparitions or ghosts. “Faces come out of the rain.” Environmentally they simply are incomprehensible. “Streets are uneven, when you’re down.” It is the world that is the imposition – not the other way around. This kind of “not being at homeness” in turn is an “inescapable feature of the human condition” (Young, 2000, p. 187).
Another song on the same record by The Doors is “You’re Lost, Little Girl.” As in the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, “lost” in this sense straightforwardly means homelessness.] As Julia Kristeva put it, we have no alternative but to confront “the strange within us” and the “uncanny strangeness” of depersonalization (Kristeva, 1991, p. 191) – the main issue with which Raskolnikov struggled.


Connor, S. (2004). Postmodernism and Literature. In Connor, S. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism (pp. 62 – 81). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Dasenbrock, R. (1989). Redrawing the Lines – An Introduction. In Dasenbrock, R. (Ed.), Redrawing the Lines – Analytic Philosophy, Deconstruction, and Literary Theory (pp. 3 – 26). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, J. (1967). Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference (pp. 351 – 370). London, England: Routledge.

Derrida, J. (1979). Living On. In Deconstruction and Criticism (pp. 75 – 176). New York, NY: Continuum.

Doors, The (1967). “People are Strange.” Strange Days. New York, NY: Elektra Records.

Dostoyevsky, F. (1866). Crime and Punishment.

Gadamer, H. (1984). The Hermeneutics of Suspicion. Man and World, 17, 313 – 323. Reprinted in Shapiro, G. & Sica, A. (Eds.), Hermeneutics – Questions and Prospects (pp. 54 – 65). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Kristeva, J. (1991). “Might Not Universality Be … Our Own Forgiveness?” In Roudiez, L. (tr.). Strangers to Ourselves. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Savage, D. (Tr.). Freud and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rorty, R. (1981). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ross, L. (1977). “The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings.” In Berkowitz, L. (ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173 – 220). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Searle, J. (1994). Literary Theory and Its Discontents. New Literary History, 25, 637 – 667.

Spilka, B., Shaver, P. & Kirkpatrick, L. (1985). “A General Attribution Theory for the Psychology of Religion.” J. for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24(1), 1 – 20.

Stewart, D. (1989). The Hermeneutics of Suspicion. Journal of Literature & Theology, 3(3), 296 – 307.

Waugh, P. (2001). Postmodernism. In Knellwolf, C. & Norris, C. (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism – Volume IX – Twentieth-Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 289 – 308). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Young, J. (2000). What Is Dwelling? The Homelessness of Modernity and the Worlding of the World. In Wrathall, M. & Malpus, J. (Eds.), Heidegger, Authenticity and Modernity – Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus (pp. 187 – 204). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.