Social perception is a two-step process. The first step involves forming a quick impression of others, which usually focuses on personal attributions (hence, the fundamental attribution error). The second is a slower, conscious attempt to factor in the elements of the situation as part of the explanation. Accordingly, it’s logical to expect the fundamental attribution error to diminish over time, as distance from an event makes personal characteristics less salient and situational influences become clearer.
A recent study (Truchot, Maure and Patte, 2003) provided evidence for the hypothesis that the fundamental attribution error diminishes over time. The study took place in France, where firemen, besides putting out fires, are called on to respond to any situation where there might be public casualties. As such, they occasionally tend to be victims of verbal and even physical assaults. Eighty firemen who experienced such attacks were divided into two groups, those who had been attacked within the last three months, and those who had been attacked more than three months ago. Then they were asked to make attributions regarding their attackers. The finding was that the recent attacks were more likely to be attributed internally (intentions or personality), whereas the less recent attacks were more likely to be attributed externally (daily circumstances or social climate).
Discuss the implication of the finding that the fundamental attribution error diminishes over time. For example, what are the implications for criminals whose trials are delayed? Can you think of other implications (e.g., in the area of disciplining children or marital disagreements)?