What is fundamental attribution error and how does it contribute to addiction?
Addiction is a complicated disease. There are many causal and contributing factors that play a role in the development of and the progression of a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) – genetics, environment, childhood exposure, trauma, co-occurring mental conditions, etc.
But often overlooked is how internal and societal biases can influence behaviors and attitudes. When we make erroneous assumptions to explain someone else’s behavior – or when others make such mistakes about us – it interferes with the productive communication and positive relationships that are necessary to support successful recovery from addiction.
Fundamental Attribution Error Explained
“Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment.”
~ Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, Social Cognition
Also called “correspondence bias”, fundamental attribution error (FAE) refers to the tendency of humans to make assumptions about the character of others based on their behaviors. Put another way, it is how many of us “judge” other people.
The key concept in FAE is when a person overemphasizes the observed behavior while minimizing – or even disregarding – possible external factors.
A classic example goes something like this:
When another driver cuts you off in traffic, you angrily make assumptions about the other person – they are inattentive, they have no regard for the safety of others, they are a terrible driver, etc.
Dispositional Attribution Versus Situational Attribution
This is your entire judgment of the other driver. It is based solely upon your internal perception of their actions.
But in this instance, you are not taking into account any external situational factors that may be contributing to their behavior – they have a medical emergency, a loved one has been hurt, they just spilled hot coffee on themselves, etc.
If you had any of that information, your opinion of the other person would completely change. It would not be nearly as negative.
But lacking that knowledge, your attitude towards them – and possibly towards others – is decidedly negative – and WRONG. This error on your part can even influence your behavior moving forward.
This kind of error is very common among addicts, their friends and family, and in society as a whole. How does this play out?
FAE and Society
Society often stigmatizes addiction. The character of substance abusers is frequently maligned. Very often, alcoholics and drug addicts are treated as if they are:
- Morally deficient
- Not deserving of anything better
And here’s the thing – many people in society hold these views about substance abusers, even though addiction has been officially recognized as a legitimate medical disorder. We now know that a person struggling with an Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is often not in complete control of their actions.
In other words, society places EXTRA emphasis on the dysfunctional behaviors of substance abusers, while largely disregarding the fact that they are in fact victims of a disease.
FAE and Blaming the Addict
There is a philosophy related to FAE known as the “just-world hypothesis”. This is the assumption that a person’s actions ultimately determine what happens to them. In other words, “good” behavior is eventually rewarded, while “bad” behavior is eventually punished.
Put another way, it is the belief that “you get what you deserve”.
This is a very prevalent belief held by many. This is evidenced by an unfair tendency to assign a measure of blame to victims:
- Domestic violence victims are derogated for staying in abusive relationships.
“Why doesn’t she just leave him?”
- Rape victims are castigated for their attire and behavior.
“Dressed like that, she was just asking for it.”
- People living in poverty are judged to be lacking in motivation or resourcefulness.
“Why would anybody want to live like this?”
- Individuals stricken with certain illnesses are frequently thought to be “responsible” for their condition – HIV/AIDS, diabetes, smoking-related illnesses, and substance abuse disorders.
“Nobody is forcing him to get drunk every night.”
This “just-world” bias doesn’t take into account external situational factors, and thereby presents a very incomplete picture from which to form a fairer, more accurate opinion.
This impedes recovery, because when an addict or alcoholic is blamed for their illness, they do not receive the compassion, understanding, or support they need to successfully recover. This bias explains why only about 11% of those people who require alcohol or drug treatment receive the services they need.
FAE and Friends and Family Members
Substance abusers see the same kind of bias from their loved ones. They will hear accusations from those closest to them that attack their character:
- “If you really loved me, you’d stop.”
- “I can’t believe you’re so selfish as to spend on our rent money on drugs.”
- “You must love making a fool out of me.”
- “What’s the matter – don’t you have any willpower?”
What’s striking about this kind of bias is the fact that the friends and family members of substance abusers are often fully aware of the person’s history and personal situation. For example, they already know if there is a family history of addiction or if the person struggles with a co-occurring mental disorder such as anxiety or depression.
But as with society, they make false assumptions and reach erroneous conclusions by overemphasizing the dysfunctional behaviors of the addict/alcoholic, without taking the entire situation into account.
Of special relevance, a loved one’s mistaken assumptions can negatively influence the substance abuser. If they are continually insulted, ridiculed, or blamed, they may be prompted to “live down” to expectations.
FAE and the Substance Abuser
Substance abusers are often the worst committing FAEs. In fact, these mistaken assumptions are so common among people with SUDs that there is an apropos acronym used often during recovery:
FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real
In other words, substance abusers frequently base their interpersonal responses on what they THINK is true, even though their ability to relate to others is impaired by their drug and alcohol use.
In what ways do substance abusers commit FAEs?
- About their loved ones – They may have difficulty trusting the words and actions of others. Even when someone is acting in their best interest, a substance abuser can misinterpret their intentions.
- About society – If a substance abuser believes that they are constantly being denigrated or marginalized by society, they will tend to respond in negative, antisocial ways.
- About themselves –Very often, a person’s addiction-driven behaviors are completely at odds with their own perception of right and wrong. They start to define themselves by their actions, and when those actions are improper or dysfunctional, their self-perception and self-esteem begin to suffer.
Self-Belief and Addiction
This even occurs in spite of the minimizing and justification practiced by most substance abusers. While on the one hand they make excuses or deny the existence of a problem, they are also aware on some level of the destructive nature of their actions.
Addicts and alcoholics often view things in a stark black-or-white perspective – either good or bad. And, much like just-world adherents, they have an overly-large sense of “fairness”.
This can mean that they self-measure their worth by their behaviors:
- “I’m useless.”
- “I’m powerless.”
- “I’m nothing but a drunk… an addict.”
- “I don’t deserve anything better.”
When they fall victim to such self-defeating attitudes, it becomes extremely difficult to find the motivation to get better. In their own minds, if they’re not worthy, why should they even try?
FAE, Poor Communication, and Conflict
In each instance, the FAE becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that disrupts effective communication and interferes with positive, supportive relationships. And this leads to even more maladaptive attitudes and behaviors.
How does this happen?
As an example, a wife may make the FAE that her husband CHOOSES to drink because he is selfish, self-absorbed, and uncaring. As a result, she engages in manipulative, haranguing, or passive aggressive behaviors in an attempt to control her husband’s actions.
In turn, the husband makes the FAE that his wife is a shrew or that she no longer cares for him. He copes in his accustomed manner – by drinking even more.
All of this results in even more dysfunction and conflict.
FAE and Addiction
“Resentment is the Number One offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have also been spiritually ill. When our spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”
~ Alcoholics Anonymous, The Big Book
Obviously, these mistaken assumptions about others fuel resentment – a blanket term for many negative emotions, such as:
- Holding grudges
- Imagined grievances
As a general rule, substance abusers have poor coping skills. Drinking and using drugs is their accustomed-to way of dealing with negative emotions, because it provides a temporary escape from the issues they are facing. They may use those resentments as justification for substance use.
If the biases that create resentment are not recognized and addressed, they can even interfere with successful recovery. In their book, Anger, Alcoholism, and Addiction: Treating Individuals, Couples, and Families, Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron wrote, “OK, I’m not using (or drinking) anymore, but what do I do with my anger?” If a client finds no answers to this question, relapse is likely, fear will continue to poison the family atmosphere, and therapeutic gains will be jeopardized.”
How to Overcome Mistaken Assumptions
Seeing things as they really are is crucial to successful and lasting recovery. In fact, it is the Principle behind the 4th Step of Recovery:
“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
What does this Principle of Honesty have to do with correcting our mistaken assumptions?
When we take an unflinching look at our thoughts, beliefs, and actions, we do more than take a cursory, superficial glance at the things we’ve done. The 4th Step requires us to also examine the true motivations responsible for our thoughts and actions – the “WHY” behind our behavior.
This knowledge will tell us when we are being self-serving, close-minded, shortsighted, or unfair in our judgments of others.
The earlier acronym has another relevant meaning:
FEAR – Face Everything and Recover
This means accepting the reality of our situation – the good and bad – and then doing everything we can to build upon our strengths and work on our weaknesses.
To do this, we have to look at things as they really are. And to do THAT, we must honestly try to understand things from other peoples’ point of view. We have to let go of our preconceptions and prejudices to see reality – the opposite of fundamental attribution error.