In my Cognitive Biases piece last week, I briefly introduced three common errors in thinking. In today’s post I am going to expand upon Attribution Error. Before I explain this cognitive bias, let’s look at some situations where such erroneous thinking occurs.
Where I work, at a preschool for children with substantial developmental delays, many of the children display persistently difficult behaviors. I occasionally hear from less seasoned staff comments suggesting that they believe that a child’s “bad” behaviors are the result of inadequate parenting. Parents are also sometimes admonished for sending their sick child to school or for sending in an inadequate lunch.
Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate actions of others as a reflection of internal attributes (such as personality traits, abilities, ethics, etc.) rather than as a result of external situational factors. In other words, we often underestimate the situational circumstances that cause a person to behave as they do and overestimate the impact of their personal attributes. This error in thinking is so ubiquitous and so easy to make that it is commonly referred to as Fundamental Attribution Error.
What is even more interesting is that when we think about our mistakes we tend to overestimate the external situational factors that lead to our behavior and undervalue our internal attributes. In a nutshell, others’ mistakes are a result of their personal weaknesses, but our mistakes are due to other factors unrelated to our personal weaknesses. Stepping back and really looking at it, it becomes evident that this is not quite equitable.
We have to ask ourselves – do we really have the whole picture? Do we really understand that person’s life circumstances? Are we really aware of the resources available to them? For example, in the situation noted above, is the parent able to afford a sick day? Does she get paid sick days? Did unforeseen bills make it impossible to purchase all the makings of a fully balanced lunch?
Perhaps, before judging, we could step back, think, and apply the same criteria we use to evaluate ourselves. This is difficult because we rarely fully grasp the intimate and circumstantial details of another person’s life. This is why we are most likely to make this error regarding people we don’t know well. If we accept that we lack a complete understanding of the entire picture, it is best not to fill in the blanks with speculation about the person. I am certain you would appreciate this from others when your conduct is on the line? I know I do.