The Fundamental Attribution Error: It’s Why We Label Ourselves and Others Without Even Thinking About It

Unless you’re a major science nerd like me, you’ve likely never heard of the Fundamental Attribution Error. After naive realism, the F.A.E is probably the second biggest bias in human thinking. It’s the tendency to think that people (including you) do things because you’re that KIND of person. The F.A.E. takes a behavior based on choices and makes it an immovable character trait.

So if you get a promotion you might credit it to your innate ability to work hard, but if you lose your job it’s because you’re a victim of the weak economy. However, if someone else loses their job you might think of them as lazy or unmotivated, completely disregarding their circumstances.

We all suffer from the F.A.E. Your brain jumps to conclusions about other people being that KIND of person all the time.

The example Katie O’Brien, my co-author on The Straight-A Conspiracy, came up with is very L.A.

Picture the scene, you’re driving in traffic on your way to an audition. All of sudden, someone behind you starts swerving trying to cut through the traffic jam. What’s your first thought? Maybe it’s something like “What an asshole! I have places to go to. I have to get to my audition.” In that instant, your resolve hardens not to let this BAD DRIVER cut through traffic. Then, all of a sudden, the driver pulls up alongside you and you see that next to him in the car is his heavily pregnant wife and that she’s clearly in labor. Suddenly, you have CONTEXT. This person isn’t a BAD DRIVER. There are circumstances that are making him behave this way. Wow! Now, you feel like an asshole. Suddenly, your whole outlook and your behavior changes. You’re moving your car and honking your horn. “Get out of the way people. There’s a baby a-coming and we need to get the heck out of this guy’s way!!!”

While all humans fall for the Fundamental Attribution Error, the cultures of the West fall for it especially hard.

As Richard Nisbett explains in The Geography of Thought, that’s because our rampant individualism causes us to miss out again and again on the CONTEXT for why people behave the way they do. Like that driver in LA traffic, you see them driving poorly. You label them. The label makes sense. But you forget that you actually know very little about their life. The West’s focus on the individual means that we see the tree (the individual) and forget that there is a forest (a whole life we haven’t seen and a culture that shaped that life).

Take Freeway Rick Ross. He is the drug dealer who popularized Crack Cocaine. In the West, many would jump to the idea that he was a BAD HOMBRE. But WHY did he do this? Because he never learned how to read. What other options did he have? Was it entirely the fault of 12-year-old Freeway Rick Ross that he couldn’t read? Where did he get his view of his own intelligence from?

The reason why Katie O’Brien and I wrote The Straight-A Conspiracy was to counteract the damaging effects of the Fundamental Attribution Error leveled against children by their cultures.

Kids, parents, and teachers label children all the time. People buy into those labels and stop looking at how other factors might be producing those results and that problem is exacerbated by educational psychologists and psychiatrists. ADHD is just the most infamous of these labels. Yes, children don’t pay attention in school but it’s not scientific to assume that this is the result of a genetic or medical condition. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder sure SOUNDS scientific but is it actually based on testing all possibilities?

As Leonard Sax explores in Boys Adrift, there are lots of reasons kids don’t pay attention. The material might not be presented in an engaging way. The kid might feeeeeeel stupid and think that school will never pay off for them. There might be trouble at home that is distracting them. They might be too busy thinking about sex, rock n’ roll, video games, or manga. Who knows? That’s the basic challenge of working with humans. You don’t know what is happening in their brains…unless you establish trust and get them to really open up and be honest about what they’re feeeeeeeling and thinking.

And yet, for all the neuroscience, biochemistry and genetics in Dr. Sax’s book, the line that best sums up my own experience with these conditions comes from a psychologist named Jennifer Harris.

 Talking about feeeeelings is emotionally uncomfortable for doctors, and much like the kids they’re trying to help they avoid what they aren’t good at.

As adults, our job is to do better than our parents did. It’s on us to have the emotionally uncomfortable conversations so we can give the next generation the best chance of success.

The consequences of the F.A.E. can be seen throughout all aspects of our society, from how we label poor students as LAZY to how we view drug dealers (whether they push Crack Cocaine or Ritalin) as BAD HOMBRES. Like all of us they blindly copied a culture they did not create and they’ve done their best to navigate that system.

If we want a better system, then we have a lot of feeeeeeelings to talk out and W.E.I.R.D. Science is going to have to take a hard look at the toll its cultural biases have taken on the educational outcomes of 100 years worth of children. Simply having these sorts of conversations in public will earn you lots of labels. In the end, it’s a question of priorities. Do you care more about not rocking the boat than helping children succeed?

In the meantime, question medical and scientific authority. Don’t just ask for a second opinion, ask how that opinion was formed. The first step in counteracting bias is knowing it exists.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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