Latticework of Mental Models: Fundamental Attribution Error

The first impression is the last impression. I am sure you’ve heard this advice numerous times especially from the communication skill experts. But the more I studied psychology, stronger became my belief that there’s quite a bit of truth in this saying. However, if you’re into the business of working with people, it’s the first impression you shouldn’t trust.

Had I gone with my first impressions about some of the strangers I met in my life, I wouldn’t have found my best friends. If you look back in your life and trace the history of your relationships with your best buddies, you would tend to agree with me on this. In fact, go ahead and ask your old friends about how they thought of you (in the first meeting) as a prospective candidate for a long-term friendship.

Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we have a natural tendency to attribute his behaviour to his personality. If that stranger’s behaviour is cold and unresponsive, we jump to the conclusion that he is either shy or introvert or perhaps arrogant. Whereas an individual who seems warm and lively makes you believe that the guy is an extrovert.

Sometimes you may be right, but often you are falling for what is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. This error is the result of people’s tendency to place an overemphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behaviour in a given situation rather than considering the external factors guiding that situation.

In other words, we blame the behavior to an individual’s choices and disposition and not the situation. When you haven’t had a chance to get to know a person, the tendency is to turn the person into a character. Put simply, we associate bad behaviour with the person and not the situation. Unless, of course, we’re talking about ourselves.

If you have known a person for some time and familiar with his usually calm behaviour, you would assume that his sudden outburst is more a result of a particular situation rather than his character. But when you don’t have the benefit of knowing the personality of a stranger, you almost always end up creating a stereotype out of his recent behaviour. In other words, when you can’t check for consistency, you blame people’s behaviour on their personality.

Isn’t it possible that this new guy is also a victim of some unusual situation and has been provoked by a recent stressful event?

Fundamental attribution error drives us to jump to conclusions. We see the person and ignore his surroundings, and then cast blame on only the individual. Daniel Kahneman has termed this bias as – What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). It’s not much different from availability bias which is the human tendency to give undue credit to the information which is readily available.

So what explains the reason behind this error?

Part of the reason is this –

A human mind is always struggling to make sense of the world. That’s how evolution has wired us. We love the narratives where the characters in the story are responsible for bringing twists in the tale. We are always searching for an explanation as to why people are behaving the way they do. When we witness an evil act, it’s hard to imagine that it was committed by an ordinary mind mired in a series of terrible events and social pressures. It’s more believable that the bad behaviour was a result of the working of a deviant mind.

Movies and books with a cast of characters make sense to us because in life we imagine everyone as a character whose behaviour is predictable. But in this way, we commit the fundamental attribution error by believing that other people’s actions originate from the sort of people they are and have nothing to do with the setting.

It’s not easy to grasp just how powerful a situation can be and how much it can influence the behaviour of you and people you think you know pretty well. And it has been proved experimentally.

An Evil Experiment

Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo did a social experiment in 1971 that showcased the power of situations.

Zimbardo hired twenty-four volunteers in a two-week-long prison experiment. The volunteers were paid $15 a day to participate. The participants were subjected to thorough psychological and physical tests to ensure that they were healthy and physically stable.

Half of the volunteers were to play the role of prisoners and the rest to be prison guards. A makeshift prison was built in the basement of Stanford’s psychology department. On arrival at the jail, the guards and warden took steps to humiliate, dehumanize, and oppress the prisoners. Of course, it was all part of the act and volunteers knew it.

From the second day, Zimbardo noticed that the volunteers started to act out their assigned roles. The prisoners tried various tactics to gain an advantage over the guards and tried to escape, while the guards schemed to keep the prisoners in check. Since Zimbardo randomly designated the roles, it was clear that the behaviour was shaped by the situation. Concerned that the guards actually started abusing the prisoners, Zimbardo questioned the situation’s morality and ended the study after only five days.

This experiment is proof that one shouldn’t underestimate the role of the environment and the influence of the person’s peers, i.e., peer pressure, in defining human behaviour.

“Some of the greatest atrocities known to mankind,” writes Michael Mauboussin, “resulted from putting normal people into bad situations.”

That probably explains how Hitler’s Nazi army ended up massacring millions of people. Of course, this is not an argument to justify the horrifying acts of Nazi army, but it sure helps to understand that not everyone in the Nazi army was inherently evil and heartless person.

Rolf Dobelli, author of the excellent book – Art of Thinking Clearly, writes –

The fundamental attribution error is particularly useful for whittling negative events into neat little packages. For example, the ‘blame’ for wars we lazily push on to individuals: the Yugoslav assassin in Sarajevo has World War I on his conscience, and Hitler single handedly caused World War II. Many swallow these simplifications, even though wars are unforeseeable events whose innumerable dynamics we may never fully understand. Which sounds a little like financial markets and climate issues.

Dexter Filkins, an American journalist, known primarily for his coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote –

In war, people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and in those circumstances, they act in extraordinary ways. In war, you see people at their very best and their very worst, acting in ways you could never imagine. War is human drama at its most epic and most intense.

Many times you’d hear stories of acts of heroism by ordinary people. Media usually sensationalizes this kind of stories and elevate those heroes into God-like position. But if you look at such instances through the lens of fundamental attribution error mental model you would see that those acts of heroism were merely the result of an ordinary person being thrust into extraordinary circumstances which required him to rise to heroism.

There are no extraordinary men, goes the adage, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.

In fiction, there’s an archetype called Reluctant Hero which captures this idea. Reluctant hero scripts have given many blockbuster movies. Remember officer John McClane from the movie Die Hard?

So how did this strange behavioural quirk found its way into human psyche? Dobelli explains –

We shouldn’t judge those guilty of the fundamental attribution error too harshly. Our preoccupation with other people stems from our evolutionary past: belonging to a group was necessary for survival. Reproduction, defence, and hunting of large animals – all these were impossible tasks for an individual to achieve alone. Banishment meant certain death, and those who actively opted for the solitary life – of whom there were surely a few – fared no better and also disappeared from the gene pool. In short, our lives depended on and revolved around others, which explains why we are so obsessed with our fellow humans today. The result of this infatuation is that we spend about 90% of our time thinking about other people, and dedicate just 10% to assessing other factors and contexts.

The attribution bias has another effect. When people attribute their success to their own personality, hard work and talent without giving due regard to the situational advantage created by pure luck, it gives people the illusion of being better at what they do. This explains the findings that 80-90 percent of people think that they are above the average in many things.

This translates into overconfidence bias too. You could say it’s the flipside of attribution bias – when considering our own mistakes, we tend to blame the environment (and luck) rather than blaming ourselves.

By acknowledging our propensity for this bias, we can also improve our relationships. One of the root cause of unhealthy relationships is the human tendency to find intentions behind other people’s mistakes. We fail to realize that many times those mistakes were a result of an unfavourable environment.

In Investing

Often the credit for a growing and profitable business is given to the management and the person at helm. No doubt, the CEO’s decisions do make a difference but it’s equally likely that the business flourished more because of the favorable economic environment. Right timing, market and other macro factors contribute more rather than CEO’s talent alone. And same happens when a business fails.

Warren Buffett accurately captured this idea when he said –

When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

The link between the skill of the CEO and the results of the company are tenuous, writes Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness, “By some argument, the boss of the company may be unskilled labour but one who presents the necessary attributes of charisma and the package that makes for good MBA talk. In other words, he may be subjected to the monkey-on-the-typewriter problem. There are so many companies doing all kinds of things that some of them are bound to make ‘the right decision’.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, has filled in finer details about successful people like Bill Gates. No doubt Gates’ success was a result of his extraordinary talent, hard work, and smartness but what can’t be ignored is the series of fortunate circumstances that enabled him to capitalize on his inherited gifts. In 1968, when very few people had heard of the word computer, Gates’ elementary school was probably the only elementary school in the country which had a computer. He also got lucky to have access to University of Washington computer lab during the night. So by the time he graduated from high school Bill Gates had benefitted from a string of coincidences that provided more time and exposure to computers and programming than perhaps any other teenager in the world.

The fundamental attribution is the reason we create false labels and form incorrect assumptions about people. First impressions are often inaccurate. Those impressions will linger until you get to know people and understand their situation and the circumstances in which they acted the way they did.

To avoid the fundamental attribution error, focus on the context first rather than the individual. Judge the decisions of others by starting with the situation and then turning to the characteristics of the people.

Like all other cognitive biases, this one isn’t easy to avoid. No matter how hard you try, you’ll find yourself falling for attribution bias, even after knowing about it. And every time you fight the natural force of behavioural bias, it’ll severely tax your mental resource. So it’s best to keep your guard on only for high stake situations and decisions.

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