Behaviour – Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error

Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error Cartoon of three green frogs holding drinks and handbag

Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error – impressive party talk!

I remember during the lecture the presenter outlined the potential impact of brain injury and Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

I remember the topic of the talk was challenging behaviour after brain injury.

I remember the presenter was a Scottish guy who focussed on people with significant behaviour issues after brain injury.

I remember while new to me, the theory made sense. So much so, I remember it still…

And I remember thinking –  Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) – that’s a topic sure to impress at a party! No not really.

Today my  bumbling attempt to talk about the link between attribution theory and how behaviour after brain injury is responded to. We might all benefit from understanding more about it so help me out here. Sharing knowledge is always a good thing.

Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error. Cartoon black and white line drawing of male with finger on chin and 2 question marks around him.

I’m no expert on Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error – but I reckon it can be a help in understanding behaviour.

I am no expert on all of this. What I aim to do is to share some stuff I have picked up. If you are an expert, or if you have some great resources about behaviour, brain injury and Fundamental Attribution Error – please feel free to share them in the Comments below.

About the “Scottish guy” – it is embarassing he made an impact but I did not record his name on my notes. Can anyone help me out? He talked about the potential impact of FAE on how behaviour was viewed after brain injury.

This is not a scientific detailed study of the theory. It is just me saying “Hey think about behaviour – brain injury and Fundamental Attribution Error.


Attribution Theory

Before I go into brain injury and Fundamental Attribution Error a bit more – my simple summary is that it’s about the “rules” we unconsciously use to view behaviour – ours and others.

It says that in part challenging behaviour is in the eye of the beholder. And we need to be aware of the impact this can have both on our behaviour and how we see others.


Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

If I do something well – it’s all me. It is inside me.

If I do something badly – its circumstance, or something around me, causing it. It is outside my control.

If you do something well – it is circumstance or something around you causing it.

If you do something badly – it’s all you!

A few years ago I was driving my father’s truck along a freeway in wet weather. It began to slide and then went spinning across the freeway lanes. I told my brother I thought the truck had a problem. He said I was a bad driver.

A few weeks later in the same truck, the same thing happened, this time my brother was driving, he immediately said it was a fault in the truck.

How we explain (or “attribute”) causes of behaviour and events then impacts on our actions and responses.

Can you see how this might influence how you view the behaviour of another person? It is more likely you will consider it personal rather than circumstances.

Still fuzzy – can’t blame you.  Please read on …


This article about motivational theories on the University of Tennessee site  might help explain more. I include a link to the opening cartoon that says it all.

We also explain (attribute) behaviours based on a number of areas such as our views of gender, culture, roles.

Gender: a man refusing to do housework might be seen as OK. A woman refusing to do housework might be seen as unacceptable behaviour – if gender roles are attributed in this way.

Roles: where a Doctor role is highly valued it might be assumed they have increased knowledge in areas beyond Doctor knowledge. A person living on the street and appearing dishevelled may be assumed to have little or no skills and knowledge.

Think about the impact of that. If we commonly, and unconsciously explain (attribute) behaviours without checking our assumptions it might significantly affect our view of behaviour after brain injury – or any behaviour. This will affect how we respond.
Hostile Attribution

Commonly we assume bad intentions in others – think about how this might affect a supporter’s view of a person who has challenging behaviours after brain injury.

This article ‘There’s a Name for Why We Assume Malevolence in the Intentions of Others’ from the Pacific Standard, Santa Barbara, California introduces Hostile Attribution Bias. Putting forward how we assume (or attribute behaviours) in others often as having hostile intent. This article states even mothers can believe their own babies are responding with hostility!

Brain injury and fundamental attribution error Cartoon of olympic rings and sports activitiesSome years ago there was a very public example of attribution theory following an incident at the Olympic games. One of the Australian female rowers on the team stopped rowing and layback in the boat just before finish line.

The rower described the build up to the race and pressure of the Olympics as causing this event.

Her team mates and others described it more as a deliberate act. “We had nine in the boat but only eight operating. I just want to stress there was not a technical problem. No seat broke. There was nothing wrong with boat.”  “A Story About Sally” gives more detail and balance to the incident if you are interested in more.

This story demonstrated the divisive effects that can occur particularly when each person attributes different meaning to a behaviour.

Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error

The invisible nature of brain injury contributes to people making incorrect assumptions (mis-attributions) about the behaviour seen. Without checking our assumptions and being alert for Attribution error it is less likely we will be objective. More likely we will take things personally. More likely we will get into blaming. More likely we will miss effective strategies.

A specific study into brain injury entitled ‘The Role Of Causal Attributions In Public Misconceptions About Brain Injury.’ (McClure. J, 2011) described in Rehabil Psychol. 2011 May;56(2):85-93. doi: 10.1037/a0023354 states:

“This research shows that misconceptions about brain injury occur because people misattribute the actions of persons with brain injury. These misattributions reflect two features: (a) the absence of visible markers of the injury, and (b) the tendency to compare persons with TBI with their peers rather than their own pre-injury performance. These two processes lead to the opposite pattern to the stigma that occurs with visible disabilities: specifically, a failure among members of the public to recognize that problematic behaviors may result from the injury.”


Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error. Surrealist painting of Mona Lisa in light and dark

Hidden Disability Can Contribute to Others Attributing Negative View of Behaviour After Brain Injury

Starting Points: Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error

Simple First Steps

  • Be on the lookout for FAE in your own day to day interactions. There is no shame in recognising it happens.
  • Be open with yourself when you see you FAE happening. Examine it.
  • Check out assumptions you are making. Are they fact? Is there another way to look at the behaviour?
  • What do MOST people do in the same situation. Look for ‘Consensus” information’ – examining your view of behaviour compared to the larger group around you.
  • If most people behave the same way in the same situation, the situation is more likely to be the cause of the behaviour.
  • Test out what you are thinking.  Ask yourself – “How would I behave in the same situation?”
  • Look hard for factors in the events, circumstances, and environment of the person whose behaviour you are viewing. What might the unseen reasons for this behaviour be?
  • Be a bit generous and compassionate – give the benefit of the doubt.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other person – this may help balance the effects of attribution.



And Finally

If you can’t wait to find out more – try an internet search “attribution theory brain injury” for a range of articles and information. References used for this article might also help – see below.

Oh and I am sorry I did try to find the name of the ‘Scottish guy’ I mentioned above. I could not find him! If it comes to me anytime I will add it. Or if you know – please let me know.



Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

Gilbert, D. T. (1998). Speeding with Ned: A personal view of the correspondence bias. In J. M. Darley & J. Cooper (Eds.), Attribution and social interaction: The legacy of E. E. Jones. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A., & Reisberg D. (1999). Psychology webBOOK: Psychology Fifth Edition / Basic Psychology Fifth Edition. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. Accessed online 18 April 2006

Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, E. E. & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3, 1-24.

Miller, J.G. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 961-978.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10, pp. 173-220). New York: Academic Press.

2 Responses to Behaviour – Brain Injury and Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. Cindy kaylor May 14, 2016 at 12:47 am #

    Are there any recent articles on attribution error and mild traumatic brain injury? I had a “damaged” brain from an experimental chemo in 1997 resulting in problems with cognitive function and “processing” information. Then, in 2013, I was thrown from a horse and had a subdural hematoma. This was considered a “mild” TBI. So in 2014, I was arrested for a DUI because I couldn’t do the vertical line walk, which I found out later I can’t do because of the brain injury, I was 64 years old at the time of this arrest. I have a perfect record prior to this incident, not even a speeding ticket for 20 years! Yet I couldn’t get 3 lawyers to believe me, so I ended up pleading guilty. I need some current articles on this subject because just because it walks like a duck, doesn’t mean it is a duck.

    • Melanie Atkins May 24, 2016 at 9:59 am #

      Hi Cindy thank you for sharing your experience. It seems all to common for people with brain injury to be assumed to be either under the influence of drugs or alcohol or making it up. I am not sure if focussing on Attribution error is as helpful for you as information on how ‘minor’ brain injury affects people. I have always taught newcomers that minor, moderate or severe brain injury can have a similar outcome on life. Thanks again, Regards Melanie