Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Correcting the Fundamental Attribution Error

It turns out that we’ve all made a critical error. And not just any error, but a fundamental attribution error. If it sounds terrifying, well, that may be only slightly off the mark.

I read about this error in Richard Nisbett’s book Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking  in which he describes “scientific and philosophical concepts that can change the way we solve problems by helping us to think more effectively about our behavior and our world.” It turns out that we are not nearly as smart as we think we are.

Our problem is that we tend to attribute other people’s successes and failures to personal dispositions while we discount the context or circumstances that may have contributed to them. For instance, we might think of Todd as a lazy student, or of our co-worker Susan as standoffish and rude, or of Bill Gates as incredibly brilliant. We don’t take into account the circumstances that may have led to our perceptions. Nisbett digs into the Bill Gates story to reveal that when he was an 8th grader his parents transferred him to a different school because he was bored. His new school happened to be one of the very few schools in 1968 that was connected to a mainframe computer. This lucky break meant that he was able to log time on the computer and even test software for a local company. From there he began sneaking out of the house at 3am to spend time at the University of Washington computer center. If Gates had not transferred schools at that critical time, would he have become who he is today?

Nisbett states, 
“Behind many a successful person lies a string of lucky breaks that we have no inkling about” (p. 35). 

We tend to assume it was the person’s characteristics rather than the surrounding circumstances that made them succeed or struggle.

The kicker is that we do the opposite with ourselves – we, having the luxury of an intimate knowledge of our own circumstances, tend to give ourselves a break when we experience failure. We attribute our problem not to a personal traits, but to the situation. “Well, I would have gotten that job if I had not gotten a cold – I just wasn’t at the top of my game” or “The teacher doesn’t like me” or “The requirements aren’t fair.”

The truth is, contexts and situations have a great deal to do with our behaviors. While we tend to think other people behave the way they do because of some innate characteristic (e.g. laziness, brilliance, greed) the reality is that life is a series of circumstances that make us into the people we currently are.

This Fundamental Attribution Error has huge implications for teachers when we think about how we approach students, parents, and even our fellow teachers. I’ve been guilty of thinking Parent A “just doesn’t care” about their child’s needs in school, or that Teacher X just has a chip on her shoulder, or that my administrator is rude. But if it were me in those exact same circumstances I would cut myself a break by understanding how the current situation is making me appear as if I don’t have time for my child or that I’m too busy to socialize and be friendly with my co-workers or that my fracturing marriage is spilling over into negative interactions at work.  

The bottom line is that we need to give each other a break. It can be hard to catch yourself doing this but, fittingly, it’s easier to catch someone else in the midst of committing the Fundamental Attribution Error. Once you begin to see it in others, you can notice it in yourself.

Does this strike a chord for you? Do you notice yourself doing this with others? Have you discovered ways to catch yourself in the act of judging others and halt the judgment? Share in the comments below.

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