Imagine yourself driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You see someone driving up the shoulder of the road to try to get to the head of the line. What is your reaction to that person? What do you call them? To what do you attribute their actions? If you call them “idiot” or worse and assume they are putting themselves above you and everyone else, that is pretty typical.
Now what if you found out that a passenger in the car was having a medical emergency or was in labor? Would that change your assumptions about the person? Would that correct your fundamental attribution error?
In the course of evolution, quick reactions were often essential to survival, and while attribution — quickly guessing the motives behind the actions of those around us and being very assured of our assessment — might have given us an advantage early on, it is now more often than not done in error.
Daniel Stalder writes that the fundamental attribution error (FAE) “is a very common tendency in explaining an individual’s behavior or outcome, especially in Western cultures.” We habitually overestimate what we think are the person’s traits (for example, “entitled jerk”) and underestimate the situational and contextual factors. We are quick to judge others but tend to go easy on ourselves. If someone tailgates us, they are idiots, if we tailgate someone else, we curse that slow-moving idiot in our way.
It’s not just driving where the FAE occurs. There is that potential in every moment. We live in stories and when there is uncertainty, we fill in the unknown with an attribution that fits our beliefs and our own confirmation bias. We look for what proves what we “know” to be true and ignore anything that disagrees, though a key element of critical thinking is to look for exceptions. You don’t prove something by finding evidence in support of something. You look for something that would disprove it.
For instance, I may believe all apples are red and show you bushels of red apples. If you show me a green apple, my confirmation bias would have me say, “now that is not really an apple.” Stalder says that we tend to believe “if A then B” must also mean “if B then A”, which is not true at all. Even if all apples are red (which they are not), not all red things are apples.
FAE is so powerful, would-be leaders use it to manipulate and gain power. You simply say that one group has an attribute, then pick out one or two members of the group to prove your point. Or you create a fake person and say they are in the group and have that attribute. You can use selective quotes, photos, and editing to make people “say” the opposite of what they actually said.
The FAE can end with someone walking off in a snit or exchanging angry words on Twitter or Facebook, but it can also end in war. We react fast based on FAE without considering whether what we believe is true and without consideration of the intended or unintended consequences.
Stalder uses real life examples, such as the edited 911 tapes NBC aired after Trayvon Martin was shot. A key question from the 911 operator — “OK, and this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?” — was edited out of what the network aired. But we based judgments on the NBC edited tape.
Another example was Michelle Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, where a photo showed her unsmiling and looking away as her husband was laughing with dignitaries. And naturally a political spin was put on it. Even when the photographer gave the context of the photo, the spin persisted. As Stalder explains, we have “belief persistence.” Overall, Stalder gives a wealth of examples, along with the underlying theories of what is going on that entices us into FAEs. He even discusses cases in which fellow social psychologists commit the FAE.
What role does FAE play? It helps us deal with cognitive dissonance, particularly when we have a need for a just world. “Those people must have done something to deserve that fate,” we tell ourselves, “for the world is just.” In fact, the world is just… the world.
We use FAEs to deal with fear. It increases when we are angry. It increases with our need for control and our inability to tolerate gray areas. It gets worse when we are hungry or even in the presence of bad smells. It decreases when we are sad. Moderately depressed people often have a more accurate view of what is going on. A possible side effect of reducing your FAEs is that you may be more accurate, but you may also be a bit sadder.
Stalder wrote this book to “bring more peace into the lives of those who wish they were less quick to get angry or defensive.” He does give us ways to reduce FAEs, for example mindfulness, empathy, and looking at situational factors. He goes out of his way to be fair and look at all sides. He even gives an overview at the beginning of his process in putting together this book.
He says, “I have definite ideas for what would be most interesting, effective, and appropriate to illustrate my points and convey my message, but I also have carefully listened to readers. I could go with the view of the majority and not worry about the complaints from the few, but I try to incorporate all perspectives. I know that I will not please everyone in every chapter, but I hope that my approach can make the overall book more interesting and rigorous for readers.”
He does an excellent job. He looks at nuances, the subtleties of FAE and behavior. He takes into account the individual and the context. And he uses a wealth of research — revisiting Milgram and Zimbardo among others with a different perspective and real-life stories such as Kitty Genovese with a deeper look.
In this age of active manipulation of our biases by others to gain power or to sell goods, I think we need to be better aware of our biases and the shortcuts we take. I highly recommend this book to help us move from a fixed to a growth mindset and live more honest lives.
The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others
Paperback, 330 pages