Fundamental Attribution Error, or You Are a Terrible Person

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The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”

The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.

During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree, which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the woman, “What have you done?!”

And the woman said, “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”

Genesis 3:1-13


We in the United Methodist Church tend to have a high anthropology, or view of the human condition. I, for good or ill, fall on the other side. A former District Superintendent once told me he believes I have the lowest anthropology in the Iowa Conference. I do believe my low anthropology can be used for the benefit of the church at this point in time, because when we speak to each other now we do not seem to come from the position of a sinner who does not know all the truth. We instead speak from positions of intense righteousness. We must remember that we are sinners, and we have faults, and those faults arise in our fights and talks about human sexuality. In this post and in the next we will discuss two ways our sin arises when we disagree with each other – the Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias.


Fundamental Attribution Error is a high dollar phrase but it basically means that we tend to give ourselves a pass when something bad happens and blame it on the world around us (such as Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the snake, and neither taking any personal responsibility), yet when someone else does something bad or hurtful we blame his or her innate character (he or she did this because he or she is a bad person who cannot help but be hurtful and bad). Just think for a little bit and see just how often this error has arisen in our discussions at Annual or General Conferences, in blogs, magazines, and much, much more. If you cannot remember seeing it, I am sorry, but it is because you are caught in the Fundamental Attribution Error.


Fundamental Attribution Error is easy to find in the Bible. In Joshua 22 the rest of Israel misinterprets why Ruben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar and come within a hairs breadth of war. David sends people to give condolences to the new King of Ammonites upon the death of his father, but the new king misreads the purpose of David’s people and makes very, very bad decisions (1 Chronicles 19). The disciples have issues with each other. We misinterpret motives, and we misinterpret the place those motives come from. If we don’t admit this fault we create more and more contention.


It is rare, even in our most volatile debates, that someone is intentionally trying to wound someone else. We sometimes believe there is a need to speak the truth of justice or declare the correct interpretation of Scripture, to which others take offense. We have negative histories with each other and take speeches or posts as personal insults. We feel so strongly someone is wrong we get really mad at him or her and fall into interpretive hostility instead of interpretive charity (see my previous post). But in none of the instances described above was there a deliberate effort to hurt another person.


We engage in the Fundamental Attribution Error in other ways as well. A lack of understanding of the other person’s theology causing us to come to worst case conclusions. Sometimes we get caught up and want to “win”, and in the process lose our objectivity. Past hurts cause us to believe what has happened is related to past hurts when it is not. Also, any time we fall into believing someone did x simply because they are inherently this way, we have fallen into the Fundamental Attribution Error.


When we believe the other is irredeemably bad and you can’t even talk with them we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. When we believe the other person is inherently bad so we get to be terrible to them, instead of loving our enemy, we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. Jesus does not believe this or act like this, thank God. We should work hard figuring out what is Right, but when we do so we cannot fall into the trap of dismissing others, and the Fundamental Attribution Error makes us fall into that trap.


We need to acknowledge with humility that we are sinful people who struggle with this issue. It is not just about the other person being wrong, it is about us misinterpreting what he or she says and his or her reason for saying it. Recognizing and admitting our issues with the Fundamental Attribution Error will help us forgive, reconcile, and speak well with each other. Then we can look to the logs in our own eye, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.