The Fundamental Attribution Error and Addiction Treatment – Helping clients see that it’s not all about them!

First let me give you some terms and definitions on the basis of the fundamental attribution theory so we can discuss how it relates to addiction treatment.
Attribution theory says that people have an innate need to explain their own behavior and other people’s behavior by attributing the causes of a behavior to a situation or a trait (personal quality). Dispositional attribution is when a person identifies the cause of an action or event due to the personal quality of a person. Situational attribution is when a person identifies the cause of an action or event due to the situation or environment.From these concepts, first developed by Edward Jones and Harold Kelly, arose Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Theory (FAE). The FAE is something that occurs everywhere, but most commonly on the freeway. It’s when you are driving and someone cuts you off and you honk at them, give them the finger, and call them an asshole. What you have automatically done is committed the FAE. The FAE is the tendency of people to explain other people’s behavior by overestimating the personality qualities and underestimating the influence of the situation. So, in the previously mentioned scenario where someone cuts you off and you call them an asshole, you attributed the action of the other person driving the car to their disregard for your own safety and right to be on the road. What you do not take in to consideration is that perhaps that other driver that cut you off had spilled hot coffee on himself, was severely burned, and was trying to change lanes to get to the exit so he could get to the hospital. In the process of trying to get himself to the hospital he accidentally cut you off. This is an extreme example of the FAE, but it helps in explaining the concept that we all automatically tend to attribute a persons actions to the person and not the situation that person is in. In addiction treatment one of the primary causes for relapse is resentment. They call it the Number One Offender in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. One primary cause of resentment is the FAE. Clients will tend to underestimate the situation the other person is in that might have led to the action that caused their resentment against them. In Addiction Treatment we try and help clients stop and see that sometimes things aren’t always what they seem and that actions that they may think were directed at them or due to another person’s innate evilness, actually has nothing to do with them at all. Many addicts and alcoholics tend to think that everything revolves around them, but in addiction treatment we help client’s realize that it is often never about them in the way they think it is. It is important for people to understand the FAE and how to prevent it from happening. Once a person understands the concept of the FAE it becomes easier for them to not take things so personally, and hopefully it will help them with their road rage too.

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