Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation's external factors.
Attribution, Judgment, Categories, and Assumption
Fundamental Attribution Error may give a person momentary peace as the act of attribution (categorization) can provide a sense of knowing and certainty in the world. But, the act of of assigning blame/causation to the internal aspects of an individual is not understanding, it is assumption.
It is understandable that individuals might make assumptions to move through life, as they lack the time and resources to perform an investigation thorough enough for objective understanding.
But, it is unacceptable for institutions to act upon the same faulty assumptions associated with Fundamental Attribution Error.
A college applicant is admitted. Their grades, test scores, and personality are attributed to be byproducts of the applicant’s work ethic or intellect.
A defendant is sentenced to prison. Their crime, their poverty, and their unhealthy appearance are attributed to be byproducts of the defendant’s internal failings: greed, immorality, and stupidity.
In both of these situations, institutions are committing FAE. Each time an individual is assessed with the assumption that the observed behavior is a result of some internal aspect of the applicant or defendant. There is little consideration beyond the individual.
Is it fair to applaud the applicant when they come from a family of teachers? Is it fair to assume that they are a hard worker when they just as easily could have the money or social connections necessary to source an abnormal degree of assistance on their assignments?
Is it fair to condemn the defendant when they come from no family at all? Is it fair to assume that they are greedy or immoral when they just as easily could have committed their crime out of hunger, terror, or a biological problem within their brain?
1,000 Days and FAE
This piece was inspired in-part by 1000 Days. As that piece describes the profound formative components which shape people within their first 1,000 days of existence, we begin to gain some insight into how significant the diversity of human experience can be.
In a word; we experience sonder: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”.
To feel sonder is similar to feeling empathy.
The complimentary distinction between the two is this: While practicing empathy, you exercise the pursuit of understanding others. To feel what they feel. But, when you combine sonder with empathy, you begin to realize that, while it is important to exercise empathy… your understanding of others does not truly begin until you appreciate that their past is complex and unique in a way entirely different than your own.
You can know what you know. You can guess what you don’t know. But: You don’t know what you don’t know.
Stop Fooling Yourself
“Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.” ~Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fundamental attribution error and hindsight bias often work together to build a person's sense of self while enabling a person to diminish others. These cognitive distortions take random reality and assign meaning and value to events which are, far more complex than most people are willing to accept.
In other words: The human habit is to transmute incomplete knowledge into illusions of understanding.
Awareness of these distortions is critical in the financial sector [Taleb’s field], but, equally important is that we as individuals, members of institutions, and HeroX innovators develop this awareness. To appreciate the limits of our knowledge and the limits of our tools is to begin equipping ourselves for the unknowable:
“...my new project is about methods on how to domesticate the unknown, exploit randomness, figure out how to live in a world we don't understand very well. While most human thought has focused us on how to turn knowledge into decisions, my new mission is to build methods to turn lack of information, lack of understanding, and lack of "knowledge" into decisions” ~Taleb
Judgement is not Understanding
Whether you are in college admissions, criminal law, or financial management: Judgement is not understanding. Labels are not solutions.
No matter what you do, it is tempting to compress narratives, to craft simple stories which justify actions and opinions of others. It’s easy to be unaware of these stories we tell ourselves. But, these stories are too often tales of limitation. F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real).
We might read about malnutrition and marginalized women only to tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about it. “Scientifically” conclude: We are too small. We are only one person. We are geographically limited.
But, these conclusions are not true. These are the False Attributions we put upon ourselves. And, while the the assumptions make about others are harmful… the most harmful assumptions are those we make about ourselves.
To assume and to accept our abilities, to enjoy our privilege all the while suppressing our potential, ignoring the potential of others all because we internalize compressed narratives of lack. This is the most destructive effect of FAE.
We can manufacture blindness to the invisible diversity which surrounds us.
We might justify the importance of our stories and our struggles so we can ignore the stories and struggles of others.
It is tempting to blame and applaud the fortunate while pitying and ignoring the unfortunate, but: blame and pity accomplish nothing. What will we do?
If we humble ourselves to see others without preconception while rooting out the self-limiting preconceptions we have about ourselves. This is how we equip ourselves and others to overcome any obstacle we might encounter. When we can see luck for luck, random for random, injustice for injustice, we can begin to address the inequity which degrades us all.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.
This is not about race, wealth, gender, sexuality, or heritage. This is about the tricks of our minds which enable us to subjugate and demean ourselves and eachother.
Systemic problems demand systemic solutions, but institutional reform does nothing if your mind is content with cognitive distortions.
Justin Ford: Pedagogy of Privilege. Discharge Judgement. Multidimensional Privilege.
Blame does nothing. Self-assessment makes way for change.
4 agreements-don’t take things personally
You dont know what you dont know book