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Monday, March 26, 2012

Blame the person or the situation?

The concept is simple, the "Fundamental Attribution Error." This is a relatively simple idea yet nearly everyone is guilty of falling victim to it every day in a variety of settings.  Let's use the acronym "FAE" as a shorthand for referring to the Fundamental Attribution Error.  You commit the FAE when you believe that other people's actions are a result of the sort of people they are and have nothing to do with the environment or situation they are in.  You quickly forget the power of one's setting in affecting people's behavior and you attribute what you see entirely on the individual.

For instance, the most common example is blaming a poor person for his poverty and assuming he is poor because he is lazy and incompetent.  You easily forget that the poor individual lives in a completely different environment from yourself and doesn't have the same opportunities available.  He can't afford to drive around to interviews and networking events and he often depends on public transportation which can be unreliable, unpredictable, and involve considerably longer travel times than using a car.  You also have to realize that the poor individual most likely lives in a low-income neighborhood with very limited job opportunities.  As a result, there actually aren't that many jobs to even consider applying to.  Another difficulty involves crime rates. This individual has to keep focused in an environment where muggings, rape, rampant drug use, stabbings, and shootings are much more common than in higher-income neighborhoods. The person's family members might also be criminals and drug users and he might have a parent that abandoned him when he was young.  The list of realistic and likely difficulties is obviously extensive and I would be able to list more if I had a background on such issues or came from such a low-income and high-crime neighborhood myself.

Given all these difficulties, can poor individuals still fight through their environments and succeed? Of course. But, the issue here is that we far too quickly forget about the environment an individual operates in and we assume that his failures and shortcomings are due strictly to internal attributes.  Do you know how successful you would be if you operated in such a difficult environment as well?  There is no way to realistically answer that question without pressing the Restart button on your life and starting in similar circumstances.

Another example of a FAE that more people might be familiar with involves significant others or family members.  For instance, your loved one is indifferent or cold towards your wants and needs.  Do you automatically jump the gun and assume that he or she doesn't care about you as a person and doesn't care about your issues or do you instead realize that this person's behavior towards you at this moment might be related to stress that he or she is experiencing at work?  Or perhaps your loved one has dealt with difficult individuals all day and their patience is superbly thin at the moment.  If the coldness and indifference is a consistent and long-term issue then there might be other factors at play and your loved one might genuinely have problems against you as a person.  But, your initial assumption shouldn't involve blaming the individual, it should first involve considering powerful environmental influences that might be affecting his or her behavior towards you at the moment.

The next time you are ready to blame or get upset at either yourself or another person for failures and shortcomings, take a moment to first consider the situation and the environment at play.  This doesn't mean that you should excuse incompetence, laziness, malice, betrayal, and other despicable  behaviors.  This simply means that you should take a more thorough approach when judging people and explicitly consider the influence of the situation and other environmental factors.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this (especially your conclusion of not entering into judgement with the expectation of finding personal fault), but I will also caution that assuming environmental factors justify a person's behavior can also be an FAE. Any time you make assumptions (the person is lazy! the person is a victim of their environment! etc), you leave yourself open to the possibility that the assumption you are making is wrong - maybe the person really is lazy, or maybe he is a victim of his environment, or maybe there's an issue of mental health, or maybe etc....

    It's a problem with the social sciences that at some level we *have* to make assumptions, even though that necessarily means that we will be missing out on parts of each individual's story. In the end everyone is their own person with their own circumstances and environments. But it is impractical, if not impossible, to always consider all those things for each individual if you are looking at larger societal issues.

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