What the Fundamental Attribution Error means for Marketers
In the last half century, social psychologists have demonstrated over and over again that contextual factors are actually stronger predictors of human behavior than personality variables. Unfortunately, consumer research doesn't always take these factors into consideration.
Every day, marketers are trying to better understand the psychology of their consumers to include sentiments, perceptions, and behaviors. There has been an extensive amount of effort invested in psychologically profiling and segmenting consumers. This includes demographic variables such as gender, age, ethnic background, and even personality.
Yet, far less effort has been invested in understanding the contextual variables that actually influence consumer psychology.
Marketers and advertisers continue to fall into the trap of the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The phenomenon was coined to describe the well documented tendency to explain someone's behavior based on internal factors, such as personality or disposition, and to underestimate the influence that external factors, such as situational influences, have on another person's behavior.
We tend to underestimate the impact of the environment when explaining the behavior of others. And we overestimate the impact of someone’s personality. People generally have the tendency to believe the fault lies with someone else.
This phenomenon was first scientifically documented in 1967 by social psychologists Edward Jones and Victor Harris. When we witness an action by someone, we are often unable to appreciate the influence of situational factors on human behavior. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, your immediate reaction is, “this person is a complete jerk!” But in reality, maybe he never cuts anyone off and is only doing it this time to get to the hospital where his wife is about to give birth.
Psychologists have found that we make the fundamental attribution error about other people but rarely about ourselves. When we do things, we always have a good reason, right? But situational factors are equally, if not more important than individual personalities in determining how people behave.
The 'so what' for marketers
For the most part, this challenges the common practice of advertisers focusing solely on identifying their consumer profiles and target audiences. This isn’t just a simple social science finding, it has everything to do with marketing and advertising, sales, and services. If you’re interested in something like consumer satisfaction, the FAE can affect these measures. It’s important to develop your consumer engagement in such a way as to understand other biases that consumers may use when interacting with your organization.
If marketers want to unlock consumer behavior insights, they must understand contextual factors in parallel. They need to identify the relevant context and examine their relationship with consumer profiles and behaviors. Contextual factors include, but are not limited to the following:
Environment: Economic, political, health or even organizational environment, can all have great influence on consumer behavior. One of the fathers of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, demonstrated how any human behavior is a function of both environment and personality. The more those two factors and their interaction are taken into account, the higher the accuracy level of understanding.
Culture: The set of shared societal beliefs, attitudes, values, customs and rules can have a great influence on human behavior. As brands become more global, they need to ensure that their products and messaging are relatable to their local consumers.
Social Factors: These can include circles of family, friends, colleagues, and in some cases even including celebrities, brand ambassadors, and product consultants. Marketers need to examine the interaction between social factors and personality types they influence.
Role: Being aware of variables such as position, profession, and even status are important to understanding consumers.
Space and Time: Research has shown over and over again that the physical or virtual space where consumers interact with products greatly affect their behavior. Noise, ease of navigation, and aesthetics are just a few examples. Additionally, consumer relationships with time, be it time of the day, feeling of being rushed, or how long it takes to complete a transaction can be a major determinant in consumer behavior.
The above list represents just a few of the many contextual factors that are relevant to consumer behaviors. If marketers and advertisers really want to unlock consumer behavior insights, they must avoid the FAE, and study consumer segmentation and profiling in conjunction with contextual factors.