The fundamental attribution error – or why you’re an asshole, and I’m rational

I was talking to a friend online. He told me about how difficult his project is, how subtle the politics are, how he has to navigate a very fine line between keeping the client happy and making sure the team is productive. He told me how he’d made some decisions that were hard to explain – he’d asked some of the team to work on features that were unlikely to be released, just because it got one of the stakeholders off his back.
We got to the inevitable part of the conversation.
“And then, there’s the legacy IT team. They’re incredibly risk averse, and will do anything to block change because they just don’t like it”, he said. Ah yes. The fundamental attribution error.

It goes a little bit like this: in reasoning and forming judgements about other people, we’re strongly inclined to attribute behaviour to a single character trait. “They just don’t like change” is a character trait, which is enough to explain their behaviour of blocking change. When you ask “why don’t they like change”, the answer is often “they’re risk-averse”, which is really just another way of saying they’re nervous about change. Our own behaviour, however, comes from a rational evaluation of all the circumstances, and can never be boiled down to a single character trait.

Once I became aware of this effect, it helped me frame lots of conversations as examples. My friend who believes there is a group of people who share a single character trait – not liking change – to the extent it determines how they behave, is a classic example.

Another example is a friend who asked me for help – he had been trying to get a promotion for some time, and approached his boss to see what he would need to do. The conversation didn’t go well – the boss didn’t seem to engage, and my friend felt his boss just didn’t value the people in the team. Again – a single, simple explanation for behaviour in a complex situation. I suggested my friend ask his boss about the team’s priorities, the challenges my boss would like help with (without talking about promotions), and sure enough – a whole set of complex, interrelated challenges emerged, and probably explained why my friend’s boss wasn’t super interested in discussing a promotion.

I’m not immune to this myself of course – but I’m trying to train myself to ask questions about situations that might stop me from jumping to conclusions quite so enthusiastically…

If you scale up the fundamental attribution error, it gets pretty nasty. It’s an easy way to divide the world into “people like me, who deserve help, respect and attention”, and “people not like me, who are all savages/lazy/corrupt”.

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