Human Design Flaw: The Fundamental Attribution Error

 A problem with bias is just knowing you have it is not enough to overcome it.

It’s 12:55 pm and preschool lets out at 1:00.  I am on one end of the causeway bridge and my daughter is in her school at the other.  It’s a 6-mile bridge with a 50-mph speed limit.  I am going to be late. I am panicking thinking how my little girl will feel when she is the only kid left at school. I have to get there.  I am speeding.  I am darting through traffic.  This is not usually how I drive and I hope everyone around me will understand my urgency and forgive my behavior.

The person in the car next to me raises a middle finger in my direction and mouths some words denouncing my character in no uncertain terms.

In my world, I am doing what is necessary to care for my child.  In the other driver’s world, I am a jerk.

We’ve all been there.  If not in this scenario, an infinite list of others.  Your behavior, when viewed with an understanding of the circumstances in which you find yourself, makes perfectly good sense.  And to anyone else, not only do you not make sense, your character is being defined.  This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

The fundamental attribution error is attributing situational behavior as a trait. The other driver did not say, “You are acting like an $%&*!!”  The other driver said, “You ARE an $%&*!!” Another example-the inclination some might have when encountering a person facing homelessness to think something like if they worked harder they wouldn’t be homeless or any money I give them will go straight to using drugs or they’re dangerous and so on. Truthfully, we never know someone else’s circumstance, but we are inclined to paint a picture assessing someone’s drive, honesty or integrity based on a glance.  When used as a device in film and literature, the FAE accounts for the better part of most plot lines.  If only the main character would tell the other main character what they are thinking or feeling, all would be well! Instead, complexity, loss, misunderstanding, sadness prevails. It is not just in movies, research suggests, this is how we live our lives.

In more collectivist cultures, the effects of the FAE are less.  In a society which values a focus on others, one acquires a broader perspective and will consider both situational and cultural influences on behavior.  This leads to a more nuanced explanation of the causes of others’ behavior.

In America, we do not live in such a society.  As a result, we do little to extend one another the benefit of the doubt.  And look at us. What a mess it seems to be.  And maybe getting messier by the minute.  We have just entered the Hebrew month of Av.  This weekend we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month where we somberly acknowledge the destruction of both the first and second temples as well as many other horrific moments in Jewish history.  On this day of fasting, we mourn the dispersion of the Jewish people which coincided with the end of The Temple. And here we are, almost two-thousand years later separating ourselves from one another all on our own.  I wonder what it will take to heed the wisdom of our ancestors who knew separation was a cause for pain and loss.

We all have this bias.  A problem with bias is just knowing you have it is not enough to overcome it.  If only it were that simple. To change the way you reflexively think takes work.  Real work.  One tool which research has shown to be successful in overcoming bias is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.  The next opinion you hear which belies your own and leaves you thinking, “that jerk!” pause and imagine some possible circumstance which would lead someone to believe, feel, think or act differently than yourself. Consider the nuanced understanding of another human being you might cultivate.  Imagine how differently you might engage with another person if you left room for the possibility they have a world of circumstances different from yours.  Or even that they might just be having a bad day.

Even better than imagining yourself into someone else’s situation, try getting to know someone in a life you don’t agree with.  That person who believes very differently from you about this or that topic whom you think is an awful human being because of it-you know the one-try getting to know them better.  Ask how they came to hold that belief without trying to change it.  Just listen.

Even better than cultivating relationships with people who are “other” for you, insist on being part of the collectivist culture.  Care meaningfully about other people who you do not know. Insist that every person is deserving of your kindness and your goodness.  Talk to the person behind the cash register and ask about their day. Say hello to people on the street.  Stop to help someone when they are struggling with a heavy burden. None of these things are especially hard to do.  And the more we do them, the less the fundamental attribution error will raise its ugly head.

On the other side of the month of Av is the month of Elul, the month dedicated to doing a deep soul inventory known as cheshbon hanefesh.  It is not too early to start thinking about the person you want to be and the society we would like to become.

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