Arsene Wenger and the fundamental attribution error

I’m not what you’d call a football fan. Yes, I always listen out for Derby’s result and occasionally listen to Radio Derby’s commentary, though it really hasn’t been the same since Graham Richards retired. But I’ve probably been to fewer than 10 professional games in my entire life.

One of the reasons for my disenchantment with football is the constant nonsense spouted by many of the people running the game. Such as Paul Jewell’s recent pronouncements on female assistant referees or the ludicrous assertion by Adrian Bevington of the FA (and many others) that the next England manager should be English. Surely we’d be better off picking the best person for the job, regardless of their nationality – or gender for that matter.

However, one person who nearly always makes me reach for the off switch is the current Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. It’s not because I dislike him or his club – I’m decidedly ambivalent about both – but that he is forever reminding me about the fundamental attribution error (FAE) from DD307.

Put simply, the FAE is an argument which states that there is a tendency everyone has to overvalue dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviours of others while undervaluing situational explanations for the same behaviours. For example, the FAE could be argued to be operating when Arsene Wenger claims that a poor decision was made because the referee isn’t very good at their job (a dispositional attribution) rather than because of the difficulties of refereeing a game where most of the participants don’t know how to spell sportsmanship, let alone understand what it is. Just occasionally when Arsenal lose you’d expect Wenger to acknowledge the possibility of situational explanations, but he seems to invariably make dispositional attributions about other people’s behaviour instead.

So when Arsenal were beaten 3-2 by Swansea last weekend, Wenger is reported by the BBC as claiming that their defeat is in large part due to a poor decision made by the referee. Earlier on that week he appeared to be blaming Arsenal’s problems on the television schedulers. In December, when they lost to Manchester City, Wenger attributes their failure to the inability of the referee to understand the offside rule. Look at the match reports on the BBC Sport website if you think I’m exaggerating!

There is a point to this rant. Most people exhibit this attribution bias even if it’s not to the extent that the Arsenal manager appears to.┬áSo do I.

The danger is that our tendency to make such attributions means that we – I – miss the real reasons for success and failure. I’m not sure if I can do anything about my own tendencies, but at least I’m now aware of the possibility that my own explanations of other’s behaviour might just be wrong sometimes …


  • tim

    Hi Jane,

    This post is deliberately written from the cognitive social viewpoint on the FAE. What would someone approaching this from a phenomenological perspective make of the whole concept and the idea that it is due to internal cognitive biases? That’s the key argument DD307 is trying to get you to think about I believe!


  • Jane

    Just came on to look for your notes on the FAE as I’m currently reading about it when I came across this. It’s helped me to understand the concept!!

  • Viv

    I attended an Arsenal game in November with two Arsenal supporters and a Fulham supporter and (Arsenal v Fulham, resulting in a well-earned draw for Fulham).
    Afterwards we all met up in the bar, and the two Arsenal supporters, who ordinarily are intelligent, rational beings, whinged for the next hour about the poor refereeing. I tried to explain the Fundamental Attribution Error to them all, however there had been too much ‘meeting in the bar’ before, during and after the game for me to get my point across.

    However when it comes to senior management, such as Arsene, I am not so sure that the FAE applies, I think it is more a result of the litigious, dismissal society in which we live. Management are fired, promoted sideways or allowed to ‘spend more time with the family’ at the whiff of a problem, rather than having to stay and clear up their mess. This is further exacerbated by fear of possible future litigation, resulting in a refusal to acknowledge accountability.

    Maybe both these reasons still fall within the FAE, but aren’t they used more consciously than traditional FAE responses?

    I’m going to send a link to your blog to the two Arsenal supporters, just to see if I get lynched!

    Glad your blog is back Tim, Happy New Year


    • tim

      Hi Viv,

      Thanks for your comment – you have an interesting argument! I think what you’re suggesting is probably part of it for many managers. However, in the case of Wenger, the moans seem to be there even when his team is winning! The reason I suggested FAE being behind it is Arsenal’s record under him. While they’ve done well, I can’t remember what the last thing was that they won. Perhaps if Wenger was more honest with himself they would have won something? After all, the attributions we make affect our behaviour. In Wenger’s case, perhaps his blaming of external factors has prevented him from having a realistic view of the weaknesses in his squad, training methods – whatever.

      I hope your Arsenal friends enjoy this – it’s not meant as a slight towards their team! After all, Derby were very grateful to pick Charlie George up from them in the 1970s! He’s probably as loved in Derby as he was in North London.


  • Me

    It is perfectly possible that Arsene Wenger is a victim of FAE, as you’ve pointed out in your blog post. However, this might as well be the kind of media rant that he prepares in order to avoid any further discussions about his team. In fact, he might well be aware of his team’s weaknesses. Personally, I think that the media – especially when it comes to football – is just one big pain in the rear end. It starts with how they comment on matches, and, in recent years, pick out single players and comment on their latest hair style or girl friends, etc. It may well be that Wenger has similar feelings about them, but since he can’t avoid talking to the media he just takes the easiest route through hell.

    • tim

      I like your line of argument!


      • Lorraine

        Hi Tim. its now 2016 and Wenger is still moaning – part of his personality. Since the game in question we have gone on to win the FA cup twice.(which is nice) As a fan and season ticket holder of the arsenal I spend most of my Saturdays in North London watching this beautiful game. Only this week I watched the ref make a really big mistake and in my view it changed the game. I understand your argument and yes we are humans and we will make mistakes. – What would be nice.. is a big fat TV for the ref to watch and learn from there own personal mistakes- only then Wenger will stop moaning.
        kind regards

        • tim

          My opinion of him has changed somewhat since I wrote the post. He’s a survivor, which is no mean feat in English football management, and he’s finally managed to put together a rather good side that might win something really big … if it wasn’t for that pesky Leicester City!

Your thoughts?