Turning Heads and Changing Minds: How Brands Exploit the Fundamental Attribution Error

Shah Mohammed
12 min readSep 3, 2023

In the world of branding, perception is everything. It’s that split-second impression that dictates whether we favour a product, trust a company, or advocate for a service. We’ve all been there — forming judgments about a brand based on its logo, a single advertisement, or the demeanour of a customer service representative. But what if I told you that many of these judgments are not as objective as they seem?

Picture this: You’re scrolling through your social media feed, and a new advertisement pops up. Within seconds, your brain has already drawn conclusions about the brand behind it. These rapid judgments, while seemingly logical, often rely on a fascinating cognitive bias known as the “fundamental attribution error.”

This cognitive quirk, often referred to as the FAE, leads us to attribute a person’s actions to their character or disposition, even when situational factors might be more influential. But here’s the twist: Brands are well aware of this psychological phenomenon and skillfully wield it as a potent tool in their arsenal of persuasion.

Understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error

At its core, the fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a fascinating cognitive bias that influences how we perceive and judge the actions of others. It’s a natural tendency of the human mind to attribute an individual’s behaviour to their internal qualities, such as personality or character, while often overlooking the significant impact of external situational factors.

To put it simply, when we witness someone’s actions or behaviours, we tend to ascribe these actions to who they are as a person, rather than considering the circumstances that might be at play. This inclination to jump to conclusions about someone’s character, based solely on their actions, is where the FAE gets its name.

For instance, imagine you’re stuck in traffic, and the driver in front of you abruptly changes lanes without using their turn signal. It’s easy to label this driver as inconsiderate or careless. You might think, “They’re a terrible driver,” attributing their behaviour to their driving skills or personality. In reality, however, that driver might be rushing to a medical emergency or may have momentarily lost focus due to an unexpected distraction. These situational factors, often invisible to us, can significantly influence behaviour.

The psychological basis of the FAE lies in our innate tendency to seek simple explanations for complex behaviours. This cognitive shortcut allows us to make quick judgments about people and situations, saving mental effort. However, it can also lead to inaccurate assessments of others and, as we’ll explore further, play a pivotal role in the world of branding.

To truly grasp the concept of the fundamental attribution error (FAE), let’s explore a couple of real-world scenarios that illustrate how this cognitive bias operates in our daily lives:

Example 1: The Rushed Commute — Imagine you’re waiting in line at a café during the morning rush hour. The person in front of you appears impatient and huffs audibly while tapping their fingers on the counter. Your instinctive reaction might be to label them as rude or inconsiderate. Here, the FAE is at play. You’re attributing their behaviour (impatience) to their character without considering the situational factors. Perhaps they’re late for an important meeting, and their actions are a result of stress and time pressure. In this case, the external circumstance of being in a hurry is overlooked.

Example 2: The Office Misstep — Now, let’s consider a workplace scenario. A colleague makes a mistake during a team presentation, causing a minor disruption. Others on the team may be quick to judge the colleague’s competence, assuming they’re not up to the task. In reality, the colleague might have faced unexpected technical glitches or had a sleepless night due to personal reasons. The FAE once again leads us to attribute the mistake to their abilities, disregarding external factors that may have contributed.

In these everyday examples, we can see how the FAE nudges us to jump to conclusions about people’s character based on their actions. It’s essential to recognize that this bias operates automatically, often without our conscious awareness.

In the context of branding, understanding this cognitive bias is crucial. Brands are not immune to attribution errors; in fact, they capitalize on them strategically. They leverage this psychological inclination to shape how consumers perceive their actions, products, and values.

How Brands Leverage the Fundamental Attribution Error to Influence Consumer Perceptions?

Brands are masters at understanding and leveraging the fundamental attribution error (FAE) to shape how consumers perceive their actions, products, and values. Here’s how they do it:

  1. Consistency in Branding: Brands strive for consistency in their messaging, behaviour, and visual identity. They know that the more consistently they present themselves, the more consumers attribute certain traits and values to their character. For example, a brand that consistently promotes eco-friendly practices will be perceived as environmentally conscious.
  2. Careful Image Crafting: Brands craft a carefully curated image that aligns with their desired perception. This includes not only their logo and advertising but also their customer service, employee behaviour, and social responsibility efforts. When consumers consistently see these elements in action, they tend to attribute these characteristics to the brand’s inherent nature.
  3. Selective Highlighting: Brands selectively highlight positive actions or accomplishments, often downplaying negative events or decisions. For instance, a fast-food chain might emphasize its support for local farmers while glossing over health concerns. Consumers, influenced by the FAE, attribute positive actions to the brand’s character while overlooking potential downsides.
  4. Storytelling and Narrative: Brands tell stories that resonate with consumers on a personal level. They create narratives that involve overcoming challenges or pursuing a higher purpose. These stories encourage consumers to attribute positive qualities like resilience, empathy, or innovation to the brand.
  5. Influencer and Celebrity Endorsements: When brands partner with influencers or celebrities who possess specific qualities or values, consumers are more likely to attribute those qualities to the brand. For example, a brand associated with a well-known environmentalist is seen as environmentally conscious.
  6. Customer Testimonials: Brands often showcase positive customer testimonials, reinforcing the idea that their products or services consistently deliver value. Consumers attribute this consistency to the brand’s character and reliability.
  7. Charitable Initiatives: Many brands engage in charitable endeavours or social responsibility programs. When these efforts are well-publicized, consumers attribute benevolence and social consciousness to the brand.
  8. Crisis Management: In times of crisis or negative publicity, brands can strategically use the FAE to minimize damage. They may attribute issues to external factors or quickly address problems to show they take responsibility for their actions, thus preserving their perceived character.
  9. Brand Personification: Brands sometimes personify themselves, giving them human-like characteristics. This encourages consumers to attribute human qualities and emotions to the brand, strengthening the emotional connection.
  10. Strategic Product Packaging: The design and packaging of products can influence consumer perceptions. Premium packaging, for instance, may lead consumers to attribute higher quality and luxury to the brand’s character.

In essence, brands understand that by consistently presenting themselves in a certain way, emphasizing positive aspects, and creating narratives that align with their desired image, they can influence how consumers attribute qualities and values to their character. This strategic use of the FAE shapes consumer perceptions, building trust, loyalty, and a favourable brand image.

A Few Real Brand Examples


Volvo is a notable brand that has successfully leveraged the fundamental attribution error (FAE) by highlighting a specific quality to influence customers’ perceptions and purchasing decisions.

Safety as a Key Attribute: Volvo has long been associated with safety in the automotive industry. The brand has strategically focused on highlighting its commitment to safety in its marketing, product design, and engineering.

Consistency in Branding: Volvo has consistently maintained its reputation for safety over the years. This consistency in branding and messaging encourages consumers to attribute qualities like reliability, security, and concern for passengers’ well-being to Volvo’s character.

Narrative Crafting: Volvo’s marketing campaigns often feature stories of families, especially children, travelling safely in their vehicles. These narratives create emotional connections and encourage consumers to attribute qualities like protection and care to Volvo’s character.

Selective Highlighting: Volvo places a strong emphasis on safety features, such as advanced collision avoidance systems and protective technologies. By showcasing these features, the brand guides consumers to attribute the highest level of safety to Volvo vehicles.

Customer Testimonials: Volvo frequently features customer testimonials and safety-related statistics in its advertising and promotions. These testimonials reinforce the perception that Volvo vehicles are exceptionally safe, encouraging consumers to attribute trust and reliability to the brand’s character.

Innovations in Safety: Volvo continues to innovate in the field of automotive safety, introducing new technologies and features designed to protect passengers. These innovations further solidify the brand’s reputation for safety and influence customers’ perceptions.

By consistently highlighting safety as a key attribute, Volvo has effectively leveraged the FAE to influence customers’ perceptions and preferences. Consumers often attribute qualities like security, reliability, and a strong commitment to passenger safety to Volvo’s character, making it a brand of choice for those who prioritize safety in their vehicle choices.


Hallmark is a brand that expertly combines emotional appeal with the fundamental attribution error (FAE) to influence customers and build a strong emotional connection.

Emotional Appeal in Greeting Cards: Hallmark specializes in greeting cards that are often associated with expressing emotions, sentiments, and heartfelt messages.

The company often uses images and stories that evoke positive emotions, such as love, friendship, gratitude, sympathy, and family. This is a way for Hallmark to exploit the fundamental attribution error by making us believe that its products will help us connect with the people we love.

Consistency in Branding: Hallmark has consistently positioned itself as a brand that helps people connect emotionally with others through the act of giving and receiving cards. This consistent emotional branding encourages consumers to attribute qualities like empathy, thoughtfulness, and emotional connection to Hallmark’s character.

Narrative Crafting: Hallmark’s marketing campaigns often feature heartwarming stories of individuals who use Hallmark cards to express their feelings and connect with loved ones. These narratives create emotional connections with the brand and encourage consumers to attribute qualities like love, warmth, and meaningful connections to Hallmark’s character.

For example, one of Hallmark’s most famous marketing campaigns featured the tagline “When you care enough to send the very best.” This tagline was a way for Hallmark to associate its products with love and care. The campaign also featured images of people sending cards and gifts to their loved ones. This made us believe that Hallmark products were a way to show our loved ones how much we care about them.

Selective Highlighting: Hallmark strategically highlights moments of celebration, personal milestones, and emotional connections in its advertisements and card designs. By showcasing these moments, the brand guides consumers to attribute positive emotions and the importance of emotional expression to Hallmark’s products.

Customer Testimonials: Hallmark often features customer testimonials and stories of individuals who have found creative and heartfelt ways to use Hallmark cards to connect with loved ones. These testimonials reinforce the perception that Hallmark enables emotional expression and encourages consumers to attribute qualities like thoughtfulness and care to the brand’s character.

Cultural Events and Traditions: Hallmark actively promotes the importance of sending cards for various occasions and traditions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. By doing so, the brand reinforces its role in fostering emotional connections and attributing cultural significance to its products.

Consumers often attribute qualities related to emotional connection, empathy, and thoughtfulness to Hallmark’s character, making it a trusted and cherished brand for expressing emotions and sentiments.


M&M’s, the iconic candy brand, effectively leverages brand personification to influence customers through the fundamental attribution error.

Brand Personification Strategy: M&M’s has personified its candies as colourful, charismatic characters known as “M&M’s Spokescandies.” Each Spokescandy represents a distinct personality, such as Red (confident), Yellow (fun-loving), and Green (sophisticated). These characters are brought to life in advertisements and marketing materials.

By giving its M&Ms human-like qualities, the company is able to make us feel more connected to them. We start to see the M&Ms as friends or even family members. This makes us more likely to buy M&Ms, even if there are other candy brands that are cheaper or taste better.

Consistency in Branding: M&M’s has consistently portrayed its Spokescandies as playful, engaging, and full of humour. This consistency encourages consumers to attribute qualities like fun, enjoyment, and a sense of delight to M&M’s character.

Narrative Crafting: M&M’s marketing campaigns often feature the adventures and misadventures of the Spokescandies, creating humorous and relatable narratives. These stories create emotional connections with the brand and encourage consumers to attribute qualities like whimsy, friendliness, and a sense of joy to M&M’s character.

Selective Highlighting: M&M strategically highlights moments of shared enjoyment and laughter in its advertisements. By showcasing these moments, the brand guides consumers to attribute positive emotions and memorable experiences to M&M’s products.

Customer Testimonials: M&M’s frequently features customer testimonials and social media content where consumers share their own playful and enjoyable moments with M&M’s candies. These testimonials reinforce the perception that M&M’s brings joy and fun to people’s lives, encouraging consumers to attribute qualities like happiness and lightheartedness to the brand’s character.

Cultural Significance: M&M’s has become culturally significant, especially during holidays and special occasions. The brand’s colourful characters and candies are associated with celebrations and shared moments, attributing cultural significance to M&M’s character.

The brand personification aligns with the FAE, as consumers attribute the brand’s consistent messaging and the personalities of its Spokescandies to M&M’s inherent character, strengthening the brand-customer connection.


Supreme, a highly sought-after streetwear brand, has achieved remarkable growth by strategically using scarcity as a tool to exploit the fundamental attribution error (FAE). Here’s how Supreme has harnessed this approach:

Limited Product Releases: Supreme is known for its limited product releases. Each item, whether it’s clothing, accessories, or collectables, is produced in very limited quantities. This scarcity creates a sense of urgency among consumers, who believe that owning a Supreme item signifies exclusivity and uniqueness.

The fundamental attribution error comes into play because consumers are more likely to attribute the scarcity of Supreme products to the brand’s popularity and quality, rather than to the fact that the company is artificially creating scarcity. This makes consumers more likely to believe that Supreme products are worth the high price tag.

Supreme has been very successful in using scarcity to grow its brand. The company’s products are often sold out within minutes of being released, and they have become a status symbol among many consumers.

Consistency in Branding: Supreme has consistently positioned itself as a brand that offers rare and exclusive items. Over time, this branding has encouraged consumers to attribute qualities like uniqueness, rarity, and desirability to Supreme’s character.

Hype Culture and High Demand: Supreme has cultivated a dedicated following of consumers who are enthusiastic about its products. The high demand and limited supply have led to a thriving resale market, where Supreme items can be resold at significant markups. This reinforces the perception that Supreme products are highly desirable and valuable.

Selective Highlighting: Supreme strategically highlights collaborations with well-known brands and artists, creating buzz and anticipation. By showcasing these limited-edition collaborations, the brand guides consumers to attribute positive qualities like creativity and cultural relevance to Supreme’s character.

Celebrity Endorsements: Supreme has garnered endorsements from celebrities and influencers who are admired for their style and creativity. Consumers are more likely to attribute these qualities to the brand when they see respected figures associated with Supreme.

Pop-Up Shops and Location-Based Scarcity: Supreme often opens pop-up shops in different cities, offering location-exclusive merchandise. This scarcity tactic encourages consumers to attribute qualities like adventure and the thrill of discovery to Supreme’s character.

Social Proof: Supreme leverages social media and its active fanbase to showcase real people wearing its products. This social proof reinforces the perception that owning Supreme items is a symbol of belonging to an exclusive and fashionable community.

Consumers often attribute qualities like uniqueness, desirability, and cultural relevance to Supreme’s character due to the scarcity of its products. The FAE aligns with Supreme’s messaging and its ability to create a strong sense of exclusivity and desire among its fanbase, ultimately driving growth and success for the brand.

Here are some other examples of brands that use scarcity to exploit the fundamental attribution error:

  • iPhone. Apple releases new iPhones every year, and the company often creates a sense of urgency by releasing them in limited quantities. This scarcity creates a sense of demand among consumers, who are more likely to buy new iPhones because they don’t want to miss out.
  • Yeezy. Yeezy is a clothing brand founded by Kanye West. The company releases limited-edition products, which often sell out quickly. This scarcity creates a sense of demand among consumers, who are more likely to buy Yeezy products because they want to be associated with the brand.
  • Nike Air Jordan. Nike Air Jordan is a line of sneakers that was created in collaboration with basketball player Michael Jordan. The shoes are often released in limited quantities, which creates a sense of demand among consumers. This demand has led to high prices for Nike Air Jordans, even on the resale market.

By using scarcity, these brands are able to create a sense of demand among consumers.

In conclusion, brands strategically harness the fundamental attribution error (FAE) to influence consumer perceptions and behaviour. Through consistent messaging, emotional appeal, narrative crafting, selective highlighting, and other techniques, brands shape the attribution of positive qualities and values to their character. This powerful psychological phenomenon fosters trust, loyalty, and strong brand-customer connections, contributing to a brand’s success in a competitive marketplace.