One bias to rule them all

Of all the concepts I learned about as an undergraduate, surely one that has made the biggest impact on how I see the world and live my life is Attribution Theory.  How eye-opening it was to realize that we are constantly attributing other persons (and our own!) actions to both internal and external factors in systematically biased ways.  The ultimate, of course, being the fundamental attribution error:

The fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.

In other words, people have a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person.

And, of course, for someone who studies politics for a living, safe to say this is kind of a big deal.  I bring this up because groundbreaking Social Psychologist, Lee Ross, who brought us the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error, died last week.  I’ve actually been a big fan of Ross since learning more about his work in graduate school (don’t forget, my training was very much Political Psychology), but I really did not fully appreciate the impact and breadth of his work.  I dis nor, for example, recall that he was also responsible for the false consensus effect (thinking that everybody is more like you than they actually are– Trump, of course, embodies this to the nth degree, “who knew…”).  It was also interesting to learn what an influence he was on Malcolm Gladwell.  That and plenty more good stuff in this NYT obituary:

No writer has done more to popularize Professor Ross’s ideas than Malcolm Gladwell. “Almost all of my books are about the fundamental attribution error,” Mr. Gladwell said in a phone interview. “It’s an idea I have never been able to shake.”

Professor Ross expanded his views into a grand theory of psychology in “The Person and the Situation” (1991), which he wrote with his longtime collaborator Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. Mr. Gladwell said he devoured the book in a single day at New York University’s Bobst Library.

“The point of that book,” Mr. Gladwell said, “was simply that if we want to understand ourselves and each other, we need to pay a lot more attention to the situations we’re in and the environment, and stop dwelling so much on an imaginary notion of the intrinsic self.”

In “The Tipping Point” (2000), Mr. Gladwell’s best-selling first book, he used that line of thinking as a theoretical underpinning to his argument about the success of the “broken windows” theory of policing. That theory holds that serious crimes may be deterred by making relatively minor changes to the surrounding environment, like cracking down on graffiti.

“Somebody once said that they thought ‘The Tipping Point’ created a genre of science writing,” Mr. Gladwell said. “I feel very strongly that it did not, that it is simply a journalist version of the kind of writing I encountered in ‘The Person and the Situation.’”

So, next time you catch yourself and recognize, “hey, maybe the situation/context has an important role in explaining this, not just the person involved” thank Lee Ross.

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