Bryan Caplan  

Is the Fundamental Attribution Error Fundamental or Even An Error?

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Greg Mankiw's learning psych from Steven Pinker, and I'm green with envy. If I could trade places with Mankiw, I'm sure I'd learn a lot - but at the same time, I could get a lot of objections off my chest. Here's one that's been bugging me: Pinker's lecture on the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a fancy name for humans' alleged tendency to attribute too much variation in human behavior to individual differences, and too little to circumstances.

It's easy to demonstrate this tendency is some experiments. In the classic experiment, people were randomly selected to deliver either a pro-Castro or an anti-Castro speech. Even if members of the audience knew that people did not choose their position, they still tended to think that people believed what they were saying.

That's fine as far as it goes. But to my mind, all this experiment shows is that if circumstance explains 100% of all variation in behavior, people give circumstance less credit that it deserves. My question: What would happen if you inverted the experiment, so that circumstance explained 0% of the variation? Would people still give circumstance some credit? I strongly suspect they would.

For example, suppose you re-ran the experiment, and let people choose their positions freely. Then ask the audience: Does the speaker genuinely hold this position, or is he faking to earn an extra reward? I bet that even if people were told that everyone got the same payoff, some people would falsely attribute some of the variation to incentives.

More generally, I doubt that the famous experiment has much "external validity." Is it true that in typical real world problems, we attribute too much to individual differences and too little to circumstances? There are lots of consumption decisions where every choice has the same price - like which basic cable t.v. station to watch, or what food to eat at a buffet. People still vary radically in their choices.

Even more strikingly, people seem repeatedly surprised by the fact that other people don't make the same choices that they do. "Opera? How can you stand that stuff? Let's watch something fun, like football." ("Grr... Opera is fun to me!") Doesn't this show that people underestimate the importance of individual differences?

Compared to these experiences, the experimental evidence for the Fundamental Attribution Error seems pretty weak. To me, anyway. After all, doesn't my position predicts that you might have a very different reaction?


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TRACKBACKS (6 to date)
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The author at Still Angry in a related article titled We are Japanese if you please writes:
    The train of thought that lead to yesterday's depress-o-fest and my becoming verklempt began with Bryan Caplan's Coffee Talkish poser: the Fundamental Attribution Error is neither fundamental nor an error. Discuss. [Tracked on May 5, 2006 10:56 AM]
The author at The Burden of Proof in a related article titled Interesting Content writes:
    Since I'm unable to spend more time writing original content for this site, I thought I'd try to publish lists of interesting links instead. Let's have a go at this and I'll decide whether to continue or not based on your feedback. [Tracked on May 6, 2006 5:32 PM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Barbar writes:

I thought the bulk of the case for the Fundamental Attribution Error was in how we make attributions for our own behavior vs. how we make attributions for others' behavior, NOT in "we never give enough credit to circumstances."

In your buffet/cable TV examples, I don't believe it matters whether you are asked to explain your own behavior, or someone else's. This is obviously not true for the Castro example.

People find that their own behavior is caused by both personal and circumstantial factors, but they believe that the behavior of others is much less dependent on circumstance.

Gary Furash writes:

The above commenter is right, and it's one of the most robust findings in psychology. It's also hugely relevant in real life. 99.9% of the time, people assume that other people do stuff because of stuff inside them, but when we do stuff it's because of external reasons. Don't dis the fundamental attribution error.

Scott Clark writes:

I am with Barbar in that I understood the concept to be most applicable when evaluating your outcomes as opposed to other peoples outcomes. If I fail it is because the circumstances were against me, but if I succeed it is because I am super-awesome. If you fail it is because you are an idiot, and if you succeed it is because circumstances were in your favor.
But from my experience with a lot of the organizational behavior literature, it felt that the a lot of the research and writing in the field was about taking a pretty easily explainable and plausible concept, slap on as fancy a label as the concept can handle, and twist it around as many ways as can be concieved until the article is published and eternal Org Behavior glory is attained.

Barbar writes:

In conjunction with Scott Clark's point, it's a little silly to call this phenomenon the "Fundamental Attribution Error," because there are a lot of related biases that are at least as important (and clicking through on the Wikipedia link I see that this is discussed there as well).

Gary Furash writes:

Well, lots of things that seem obvious or practical DON'T pan out. If you want to make fun of psychology, make fun of the completely made up stuff (Clinical and Personality psychology). The social and cognitive stuff are pretty good science.

Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows how robust this thing is in real life. How often have we wished our partner blamed our circumstances rather than us when things go wrong. It's more complicated then just this simple statement - for example, when things are going wrong, or your more distant from the target, you start doing this more.

Steve writes:

it's a little silly to call this phenomenon the "Fundamental Attribution Error," because there are a lot of related biases that are at least as important


"Fundamental Attribution Error" is a clever bit of academic marketing. A better name might be "Initial Attribution Bias", but then it wouldn't sound as interesting.

TGGP writes:

Perhaps the reason we focus on personal factors is that it is sometimes easier to change them on the margin through incentives.

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