How the Fundamental Attribution Error Plays Out in Addiction

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency of human beings to overrate personal characteristics and ignore situational factors when judging other people’s behavior. Because of this error—also known as correspondence bias—we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people and we are inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.

As an example, Emma fails a history test. Her rival Sophia quickly assumes Emma didn’t study hard enough because she is fundamentally lazy or just not smart enough. Sophia blames an assumed general quality rather than possible circumstances—maybe Emma wasn’t feeling well on the day of the test. Emma, on the other hand, will try to explain her failure by reasoning that the questions were unfairly difficult, even when she could have studied harder. She blames the situation rather than herself. 

It gets worse when we apply this bias to an entire ethnic group. In the ultimate attribution error, psychological anthropologists and political scientists observe the habit of members from one group to regard any bad act by members of an outgroup as being caused by internal attributes or characteristics rather than by outside circumstances. Conversely, ingroup members will overestimate the effects of their own perceived internal attributes—for example, intelligence—and underplay situational forces when evaluating their successes. Individual prejudice turns into bigotry and racism. 

How does the fundamental attribution error affect people with addiction? First, there is the biased assumption of others that people with an addiction do bad things—such as misusing substances—because they are fundamentally bad people (morally deficient) and not because they have a disease. They view substance misuse as simply resulting from bad choices the individual could have avoided although the absence of choice is a prominent feature of active addiction. 

Family members, friends, or the general public typically don’t consider situational factors outside of the control of the person with addiction, such as a traumatic experience, an anxiety disorder, or the presence of major depression, although these are often primary drivers for addictive behavior. There is even a significant genetic component that obviously cannot be blamed on the person with the addiction. 

The fundamental attribution error also tends to fuel justifications addicted individuals themselves may present when they attempt to explain their own behavior in situational terms, rationalizing their substance misuse: “I know I’ve been drinking a lot but it’s only because work has been so stressful” or “you’re the reason, I’m drinking—it’s all your fault.” 

So, the fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge others too harshly while letting ourselves off the hook by rationalizing our own unethical behavior. There’s also the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect, whereby other people’s expectations or judgments affect our performance and self-esteem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in which high expectations inspire better performance and low expectations lead to worse. 

Because too many other people believe addicted individuals are morally deficient and should just stop “abusing” drugs, people with addiction themselves often believe they are bad people. Some sociologists recognize this phenomenon as “internalized oppression” in which an oppressed group uses the methods of the oppressing group against itself because its members internalized prejudices and biases about their own group.

Many people in active addiction report feeling they are “worthless” human beings, indicating an almost total collapse of self-esteem. This, in turn, reinforces the urge to use drugs and alcohol to suppress the emotional pain of feeling worthless.   

Many of these thought patterns coincide with the cognitive distortions of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which aims to contain any escalation of such distorted thoughts as part of the healing process. Analogous to the Pygmalion effect CBT is based on the idea that much of how we feel is determined by what we think—influenced by what we believe others think of us. CBT tries to check an overly negative outlook on reality caused by “black-and-white thinking,” “blaming,” “labeling,” “catastrophizing,” and other cognitive distortions with cognitive restructuring, a therapeutic process that helps the client discover, challenge, and modify or replace their negative thought patterns. 

Becoming aware of negative thought patterns or internalized bias against yourself is an important first step to overcoming and avoiding negative states of mind. If high expectations inspire better performance, then positive thinking will lead to an improved attitude, more confidence, and better self-esteem. After all, the fundamental attribution error is based on a misunderstanding. Other people don’t do bad things because they are fundamentally bad and people with addiction don’t misuse drugs and alcohol because they are bad but because bad things happened to them.