The Fundamental Attribution Error of Fitness

“Damn, that dude is an absolute unit. Must be nice to have those genetics.”

“Look at that skinny tranch, I’ll bet she doesn’t even have to count calories.”

If you’ve caught yourself thinking either (or both) of these, we’re not going to come straight out and call you an asshole, but we’ve got that waiting on deck just in case.

The Fundamental Attribution Error – When Your Brain’s the Asshole

Envy, Contempt, or Thirst?

It’s something we all do in one form or another. Without getting too far into the weeds on the psychology behind the phenomenon, the Fundamental Attribution Error1 is basically when you assign blame to others based on their personal characteristics, while judging your own actions based on the particulars of the situation. It’s a nifty frickin’ concept which, on its surface, seems to explain so much about… well… everything. Heck, it may even provide an answer to the age-old question of “why we can’t have nice things”, like space travel and stable economies and world leaders whose hair doesn’t look like it was used to mop the floor of a public restroom.

In a honey-roasted nutshell, it works like this:

Imagine you’re driving down the street on your way to work, listening to NPR or Amon Amarth or the Bullshido podcast or whatever, but you get stuck behind someone going at least 20 miles an hour under the speed limit. What’s worse is that they seem to be taking the same turns as you, and you can’t get around them. Of course you immediately assume they’re an asshole—distracted, probably looking at makeup tutorials or sharing minions memes about it being “wine o’clock”. When you finally get to pass, you find yourself having to literally sit on your hand to ensure you don’t give them a one-fingered rating of their driving ability as you pass.

Later in the day though, you’re driving home slowly and carefully because your backseat is filled with grandma’s antique heirloom china plates, and— not possessing any self-awareness whatsoever—can’t understand why everyone’s cutting you off rudely. They must all be assholes. Why are there so many assholes on the road today?


Good Luck vs. Hard Work

Having now met our quota for using the word “asshole” in this piece we might as well get to the point. (The quota was 7, if you don’t want to count.)

Epic side-eye

Unless you’re intimately familiar with a person’s family back to a few generations, or are some kind of nosy genotyping cyborg from the future, the chances that you can accurately assess the genetics of some random person walking past you—especially at the gym—are about as good as the chances of you landing a flying kick in a streetfight.

Sure, there are some visible traits that are easy to attribute to inheritance rather than individual lifestyle choices, such as bone structure or height. And while to an extent they’re also dependent on factors such as childhood nutrition, they’re not things you can train in the gym.

But other than those kinds of things, you simply don’t know, which means assuming that person’s physique or athletic ability is the product of genetics over hard work, makes you… an…

See You Later, A-hole/Hater

*hate hate hate hate hate hate*

No grown adult who wants to be taken seriously should use the word “hater” in a sentence without irony, but we find ourselves in the unenviable position of that being the most direct way to explain this. People who make a habit of dismissing the successes (or gainz) of others exist in a pre-defeated state of mind that attempts to reconcile their lesser status with that of the person to which they are—often unconsciously—comparing themselves. Or in other words, like your father should have told you, while it’s easier to tear someone else down than build yourself up, the former doesn’t accomplish the latter; in fact, it just makes things worse for you.

That’s because person’s sense of their own self-efficacy—the internal assessment of whether or not you can be effective at accomplishing something—actually influences whether or not you can accomplish it2. This isn’t some magic mental supplement that allows you to transcend physics with psychology like an anime protagonist, but it will help get your lazy ass off the couch and into the gym.

But when you don’t possess that state of mind, indeed when you’ve convinced yourself that everyone else was born lucky (unlike you) not only are you making it significantly harder to justify even bothering to try, but even if you do your attempts are going to be less effective. Why? Because, again, you’re underestimating the amount of work most, if not all of those people you’re comparing yourself to, put in to get there.

TL;DR – Where Are The Memes Bro?

Chads at least read the entire f’n article
  • The relationship between mental weakness and physical weakness is a lot like the urban legend about the relationship between Marilyn Manson and Marilyn Manson: a feedback loop that nobody wants to see, but everyone will judge you for.
  • You’re not a genotyping cyborg from the future.
  • You might be an asshole; we’ll see.
You can’t even assume THIS guy is an asshole; maybe he was just out of clean shirts?

Editor’s Note: The scientific merit of correspondence bias is being revisited right now as a part of the broader replication crisis in psychology3, but for the purposes of explaining our point in this article (tell your brain to STFU and lift), it works just fine.

Sources and More Reading

  1. Correspondence Bias
  2. Expectations and Performance: An Empirical Test of Bandura’s Self-efficacy Theory
  3. The Fundamental Attribution Error is Overrated
I don't write articles for people who read the New York Times or Nature, I write articles for people who read microwave pizza instructions more than once but are significantly more dangerous as a group. Head Knuckle at Bullshido.
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  1. My life is worse for knowing a shirt like that and the high school dropout that wears it exists. Thank you.

  2. The good news—We all hypocrites, we simply take turns.

    “and world leaders whose hair doesn’t look like it was used to mop the floor of a public restroom”.

    Can’t imagine who you are talking about.