The Fundamental Attribution Error

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This is a term that every Personal Trainer, Coach and gym owner should be familiar with. If you are one of the above and you haven’t heard of it before, you’re in luck…

What is the Fundamental Attribution Error? 

According to Wikipedia, ‘…the fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behaviour, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other peoples behaviour.

So in plain English this means that as humans, we tend to attribute other peoples behaviour to the way they are as opposed to the situation they are in.

The classic example of this is getting cut off in traffic – when this happens we automatically assume the other person is an inept asshole but when we do it to someone else we can be quick to explain our behaviour by using external factors – such as being late for an appointment or being in an emergency.

For the most part, when it comes to our own behaviour, we usually blame external factors and then internal factors when it comes to someone else’s actions.

So how or when does this apply to a gym setting? 

Pretty much all the time actually. And I’m constantly guilty of it too.

I see a lot of it happen around dietary advice. You give someone a few guidelines and off they go. They check-in a few weeks later and no progress or worse still, they may have gone backwards. Upon further inspection you discover they misunderstood some guidelines and you begin to get indignant when you realise what they have done.

Going by social media this is a common occurrence. It usually happens when someone is outside of their area of expertise – in this context, most non-coaches, trainers and gym owners, i.e the people paying us for our knowledge.

It most definitely presents problems in the fitness realm as when the Fundamental Attribution Error is present, empathy is usually lacking and judgments are in abundance. Not an ideal environment for learning or growth.

All of us would have a hard time not only admitting our knowledge is lacking in a certain area but then to make matters worse, we are abused for it. My knowledge is lacking in many areas and never do I feel more threatened and at an immense disadvantage when having to bring my car to a garage when something is wrong with it, already I am breaking the stereotype of the alpha male that can fix a car issue without the help of Google, or shock horror, a professional and I don’t need to be reminded about it – the cold sweats usually do that for me.

In a book I was reading recently it talked about problems a web development company was having with customers having difficulty around the functionality of a website they were building. The developers were incredibly frustrated with the consumer’s inability to navigate the site and immediately jumped to the conclusion that the customers were idiots. In an effort to negate this attitude, the management team had the developers observe a test group of consumers secretly and saw them experience their frustrations first hand. This in fact led the developers to be more understanding of the customer’s difficulties and allowed them to have more patience and empathy when looking for a solution.

This resonated with me a great deal (as I also spent time as a web designer in the past and had experienced the above) and I can see how this situation arises constantly in the fitness industry.

We owe it to our profession – and clients(!), to take a mature, impartial and analytical approach to their problems. Of course their knowledge will probably be lacking when it comes to topics fitness based and it is on us to help solve their difficulties in a fashion that works for them.

It is then ‘higher order thinking’ to see why certain problems are arising – and also to see if these problems are consistently re-occurring. If so, then it may be in the manner that we as coaches, are delivering the information.

On the clients side it is important to help them be aware of their environment and how it impacts on their behaviours and also to help them look at ways to ‘manipulate’ their environment to encourage positive behaviours and make negative behaviours more difficult to execute. In the book Switch, this is called ‘Shaping the Path’.

Some common strategies to encourage positive behaviour would be eating using smaller plates, making sure there is no junk food stocked in the house, buying a regular alarm clock and leaving your phone outside of your bedroom, not using your phone in the car while driving, packing your gym gear every evening before you go to bed, etc. The list goes on.

But one of the main ways to avoid this frustration on both the side of the coach and the side of the client is to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible. Clear direction is crucial.

In Conclusion

This is a broad topic, ranging over a lot of different scenarios but making sure the individual understands instruction clearly is key. This is also an opportunity to look at your own systems and instructions and see if there is an easier way or more concise way to deliver information.

It is uncomfortable to perform an internal audit and to see that maybe you could do things better or maybe you were presuming that a new client had the basic understanding of macronutrients and energy balance. I know personally, when I look back at many times I have been frustrated with someone’s inability to implement information I have given, a lot of the time that has been on me and my lack of clarity in giving a direction.

Having said all of the above, there have been times when I have tried to show too much empathy and I have probably enabled bad behaviours or excuse making. This will come down to knowing your own members / clients and your ability to read situations and personalities – skills that will ultimately determine your own success in this game.

There will be times when tough love is necessary in order to break shitty habits but the key is knowing when to implement tough love – a lot of the times as coaches we are too quick to pull the trigger here without understanding the situation or cause of the problem better. In taking the time to do so, everyone will benefit.


The topic of Fundamental Attribution Error First became known to me when reading Switch. It immediately set off triggers of incidents when I have done this professionally (I do this every day driving the car) and in particular when I was a web developer. Oftentimes the frustration I would encounter in trying to help others would stem from having the information to help them but yet see them unable to implement the information – this was obviously happening through a lack of clarity on my part or not being able to meet the individual at an appropriate level.

As I age and add the years to what I am doing, I see how health and fitness is a platform that I currently use to help people build confidence in themselves and improve their well being and this takes on more subtle attempts as the years pass. Right now I am fascinated by compliance and what makes individuals ‘do’.

We are living in an information age where knowledge is clearly not enough – we have all the information we need at our fingertips but we could argue that people have never been more uncertain of their own purpose or unclear of direction. I hope that starting with small distinct steps and understanding that we have the ability to shape our environment, will bring us inline with our own individual goals and values.

author: admin