Are you feeling down these days? Does it seem as if everybody is saying you are wrong and they are right—like when your customers are screaming about your bad service? Maybe even your relationship with your significant other is going south—and, of course, it's your fault.
So just what is going on?
Well, if you're like most people, you live in a world where blame often happens in a systematic and predictable way. People simply have a tendency to believe the fault lies with someone else—and that someone else can be you. Of course, the process can work in the opposite direction, too... as when you are always right and someone else is wrong.
To answer this (and better diagnose what's really going on), we offer you a handy idea called the fundamental attribution error, or FAE for short.
Also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, FAE has long been recognized by social psychologists and researchers of consumer behavior. It refers essentially to a bias that people have in assigning responsibility for behavior. Specifically, it goes something like this: If something bad happens to me, it's due to somebody or something else; If something good happens to me, well, it's because of me!
It is hardwired in our brains (you see it plainly with young children), and it remains with us throughout our life.
Now, you might think of this as a cute scientific finding that has little relevance to marketing, but you would be wrong. It has everything to do with marketing, sales, service, alliances, and marketing relationships. (We'll go even further: It has an effect on your personal relationships as well.)
Bad Service, or Why You're Always at Fault
Consider service encounters. I'm sure you've had customers who've yelled at you for things that they did themselves. Maybe they didn't read the instructions carefully on a product you sold them, or they didn't see the links on your website they were supposed to click. Maybe you were at fault, or maybe you weren't. It doesn't make any difference, since it's something bad that happened to a customer, so they will typically say it's due to somebody else... namely, you. That's the FAE at work.
Of course, the easiest way out of this is to make sure your customers always have good things happen to them... That makes them feel good, empowered... and they are likely to take responsibility for all of this good stuff.
Not convinced that the FAE is that powerful? Consider the following actual, recorded statements* having to do with responsibility for car accidents, and notice the power of the fundamental attribution error:
It Wasn't My Fault!
- No one was to blame for the accident, but it never would have happened if the other driver had been alert.
- A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.
- The telephone pole was approaching fast. I was attempting to swerve out of its path when it struck my front end.
It Was My Fault, but (only partially so)
- In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
- The pedestrian had no idea which way to go, so I ran over him.
- The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering it into the other vehicle.
- A guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.
Breaking Up Alliances and Relationships
Whenever there's an encounter between two people, the context is rife for the fundamental attribution error to occur. Not sure whether that's true?
Think about the relationships you now have with other people and think about one that isn't going well (or maybe one that broke up recently). If you're like most people, you probably think the problems rest with your partner (and your partner thinks the problems are all with you). That, again, is perfectly consistent with the FAE: If something's wrong, it's somebody else's fault.
Satisfaction and Other Things
Often, marketing is concerned with measuring customer reactions. For example, you might be interested in the satisfaction your customers experience. The FAE can play havoc with these measures, typically making you look worse than you really are. The same thing happens in all evaluative situations, such as performance evaluations.
The point of all of this is that to truly understand what's going on you have to understand the biases that people use to judge situations and ascribe responsibility.
No, it's not that you're always wrong and the customer is always right; it's just that customers are hardwired to think that way.
If you understand your own biases, you can take responsibility and improve your customer relations and partnerships. If you understand your partners' biases, you can better work with them by having a more sympathetic ear.
After all, just like you, they're acting human.
* Abstracted from information submitted to the FTC project on consumer life insurance information disclosure—reflects actual policyholder reports.