When we are trying to understand and explain what happens in social settings, we tend to view behavior as a particularly significant factor. We then tend to explain behavior in terms of internal disposition, such as personality traits, abilities, motives, etc. as opposed to external situational factors.
- Changing Minds definition of Fundamental Attribution Error
In contrast with the other cognitive biases discussed here, fundamental attribution error (FAE) is more controversial than the others. I get the impression that it is is regarded as less robust than other concepts explored in this series. However, I have seen examples of this in action often enough to consider it worthy of further exploration. This bias is also more concerned with perception and behaviour rather than information use per se. Given that librarians work with people all day though, understanding perception is important. If you need more convincing of the importance of understanding perception, then I’ll refer you to the SLA Alignment Project. Without further ado, let’s get into this error and see what can be done about it.
Explaining behaviour: the balance between personality and context
I’ve been thinking about this error for some time and have found it more difficult to explain than some of the other biases explored in this serires. Here’s the explanation I’ve come up with: fundamental attribution error occurs when you explain behaviour by personality primarily, rather than balancing it with context. Imagine you are told a story about a person who killed another person and nothing else; you might explain that by saying the person is evil. But maybe there is a context – the person was a soldier in a war – that better explains the behaviour. It is a question of focus and many people find it difficult to get the context right. As seen in the other parts of the series, fundamental attribution error saves mental effort at the expense of accuracy.
The Research on Fundamental Attribution Error
As with the availability heuristic, fundamental attribution error was discovered during psychological research in the 1970s. In a 1977 article that has been cited over two thousand times according to Google Scholar, Lee Ross found that participants in an experiment tend to overemphasize personality and character over context. It was based on an experiment where students were given pro-Castro and anti-Castro essays to read. As Wikipedia summarizes the experiment (conducted in 1967; replicating this experiment in 2010 would require some modification):
Subjects read pro- and anti-Fidel Castro essays. Subjects were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude toward Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris’ initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer’s positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers.
The controversy on FAE is considerable however. John Sabni, Michael Siepmann and Julia Stein argue in a 2001 article that FAE, as conjectured by most social psychologists does not exist. They posit an alternative explanation that suggests that people are actually more motivated to save face or avoid embarrassment. Other psychologists have argued that encouraging students to focus on situations rather than personality may help in better understanding situations like the Jonestown. In the commercial context, I found it very interesting to see some research into the possibility that FAE may be taken into account when designing customer services. The controversy also concerns whether this phenomenon should be better termed as “correspondence bias” but I leave that particular debate to others.
As somebody who formerly worked in technical support, I can appreciate that. Some staff were tempted to label customers as incompetent, rather than considering other factors (e.g. the fact they be using a new operating system, that they are trying to do something new under stress etc). In some cases, there may have been a combination of situational pressure and lack of skill but I would apply FAE and come up with this: focus on things you can improve or adjust for the customer rather than compounding their frustration by labelling them as incapable or defective in some other way.
Practical Steps to Overcome Fundamental Attribution Error
- Avoid the evil/incompetent explanation: explaining behaviour by labelling somebody as evil or incompetent doesn’t advance things very far. You’ve insulted the person and then what do you do?
- Scan the environment: what are the constraints, rules and stresses affecting this person? Is their context different from yours? How?
- What would you do?: Imagine yourself performing the same action; why would you do it?
I don’t want to discount the importance of character and personality; that certainly matters. I want you to consider other explanations and how ways to explain behaviour. Done well, this can help you understand people better. With any luck, it will help you be more productive in dealing with people. Does knowing about fundamental attribution error change how you approach things? For me, it helps me more calmly approach customer service phone interactions and other bureaucratic situations.
Ross, L. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. (1977) – I couldn’t locate a good reference link for this but it has appeared in a journal and in books.
Riggio, Heidi R and Garcia, Amber L. “The Power of Situations: Jonestown and the Fundamental Attribution Error.” Teaching of Psychology, 2009
Sabini, John; Siepmann, Michael and Julia Stein. “The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research.” Psychological Inquiry, 2001
Gebauer, Heiko; Krempl, Regine and Fleisch, Elgar. Exploring the Effect of Cognitive Biases on Customer Support Services, Creativity and Innovation Management, 2008