Your affiliate relationship is on the rocks. Your customers are screaming about your bad service. Your relationship with a key partner is going south. What's happening?

Well, if you're like most people you have a tendency to believe the fault lies with your affiliate, customers and partners. Of course, that's not true, but why are you 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."

The fundamental attribution error (or FAE for short) has long been known by social psychologists and researchers in consumer behavior. This is essentially a bias people have towards assigning responsibility for behavior. 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!

This is something that is hardwired in our brains (you see it plainly with young children), and remains throughout our life.

Now, you might think of this as a cute scientific finding that has little relevance to marketing or anything. If you think this way, you're wrong. It has everything to do with marketing, sales, service, alliances and marketing relationships. We'll go even has an effect on your own personal relationships as well.


Take, for example, service encounters. I'm sure you've had customers who yelled at you for things they, in fact, did. Maybe they didn't read the instructions carefully on a product you sold them, or didn't see the links on your web site 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 happens to a customer, and 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 makes them feel good, empowered...and they are likely to take responsibility for all of this good stuff. Let them.

Not convinced that the FAE is that powerful? Consider the following actual statements for responsibility for car accidents and notice the power of the fundament 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.

Abstracted from information submitted to the FTC project on consumer life insurance information disclosure- reflects actual policyholder reports


Anytime you have an alliance between two companies (such as an affiliate program or any inter-company relationship), you have a rich context for the fundamental attribution error. Not sure about this?

Think about the relationships you currently have with other companies 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 due to somebody else.


Often marketing is concerned with measuring customer reactions. For example, you might be interested in the satisfaction your customers experience. The FAE can also 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. (click here to read more about biases in marketing and also read our article Fallacies and Failures: Ways of Thinking That Doom Start-ups).

No, you're not always right and the customer is always wrong - you're just hardwired to think that way.

If you understand you're own biases, you can take responsibility and improve your customer relations and partnerships. If you understand your partner's biases, you can better work with them by having a more sympathetic ear.

After all, just like you, they're acting human.

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is founder, CEO, and Positioning Practice Lead at MarketingProfs. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.