The Poor and The Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the most important findings in social psychology is what is known as the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is how we tend to revert to characterological, trait-based, personality-driven, and dispositional factors in explaining behavior. For example, I might look at your work ethic and conclude that you are lazy. The problem is intrinsic to your character. Your personality is flawed and is to blame. You're a bad apple.

Another way of describing the fundamental attribution error is to say that we tend to downplay or ignore the power of situations. When we see bad behavior we don't tend to look at the environmental context, the situational causes and pressures. We tend to go looking for bad apples.

Why do we do this? Because it's easier, quicker and cleaner. It's easier to locate, blame and punish a lone perpetrator than to rethink environments, systems and organizations that produce the "bad" apples. Reimagining and reconfiguring those environments might implicate me, as both cause and solution. I might have to make some changes. And that's no fun. So it's easier to allow the fundamental attribution error to do its work, allowing me to blame people rather than broken environments or toxic systems.

And yet, social psychology has long known that the fundamental attribution error is, well, an error. Time and time again social psychologists have pointed to the power of situational pressures in explaining behavior. One only needs to think of some of the most iconic studies in social psychology--like the Milgram Obedience Studies and the Stanford Prison Study--to see this.

I bring up the fundamental attribution error to make an observation about how people talk about the poor in capitalistic economies. Specifically, the poor are often blamed for their lot. They are lazy, undisciplined, and lacking in work ethic. "Work ethic" here is a dispositional and characterological trait. A thing intrinsic to the person.

But if social psychology is to be believed things like work ethic, thrift, self-control and motivation might be better viewed as environmentally driven. And if that is so then attending to environments, rather than blaming people, is critical in effecting change in the world.

It's too easy to blame individuals. In fact, it's a mistake that psychologists have a name for: the fundamental attribution error.

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32 thoughts on “The Poor and The Fundamental Attribution Error”

  1. Put less "academically," if you find a rotten apple in the barrel you might ask what is it about the barrel that is rotting the apples?

  2. I'm glad to see this. Over the weekend I encountered a Facebook meme, where a "doctor" wrote a letter (addressed to the world as a whole, or whoever might read it) complaining about people who come into the emergency room and can't pay their bills, but they can afford "gold teeth and tattoos."

    And I first saw the Facebook post when it was shared by a friend whom I would consider to be fairly liberal and compassionate.

    But we are humans and we like simple things. Simplified problems. Simplified groups of people.

    We see the complexities in our own lives, but quickly come reductionist when analyzing others. Illegal immigrants are taking our jobs. Republicans hate women. People on welfare are lazy, scammers.

  3. It's almost as if you've made your point about the fundamental attribution error by committing the fundamental attribution error. Is it not the same thing to judge those(non-poor) as being too quick and easy and unwilling to change as you have described how the non-poor judge the poor?

  4. Excellent piece.  ChrisB, in regard to Facebook, I have seen posts, unfortunately some from old friends and relatives, who complained about people receiving food stamps, and yet, get their nails and hair done.  As if some one who needs to eat should have no desire to look nice.  Of course, it was obvious from the posts that they were aimed at people of color.

    Many church people have the romanticized notion that the poor today should act like the poor in Bible movies.  Now, no one loves a Bible movie more than I.  But I also have to keep in mind that the poor are like the rest of us.  Some are nice, some are not.  Some dress like me, some do not.  Some, when they speak are sweet, some are crude.  But God does not make any of these characteristics a condition.  The compassion we must chose to be a part of our outlook has a way of seeing through the shell.  

  5. I meant to put the word "characteristics" in quotes to make my point,...but...

  6. I meant to put the word "characteristics" in quotes to make my point,...but...

  7. This is helpful.  As I've been trying to figure out one of the most "socially progressive" schools in the world that focuses on social justice is also one of the most racist environments I've ever been in, I've been using the word "essentializing" a lot.  I suppose I was thinking of the Fundamental Attribution error.  Either way, have more nuances in my vocabulary helps for (self) understanding.

  8. Does this help to explain why it might be easier to be Christ-like to the poor and disparate communities in another world thousands of miles away from where we live rather than be Christ-like to those poor and disparate communities that exist only a few minutes from our own backyards? 

    If we go into the worlds of the poor and disparate as Christ-centred beings and live amongst them (not several miles away from them where we don't have to smell them or view their non-scenic piles on a 24/7 basis, but more on a rota basis) and work with them, and in, say, 10 years we have learned to love and trust each other, we have effected change in their world, which we are now a part of (but still considered outsiders). Will that change be considered enough? Or will we have to concede failure to effect change 'in the world' because the economy and basic health care needs might not have been altered to as high a sustainable standard as that which exists in the world from which we came? Whose world are we trying to effect change for? 

    Thanks much for your food for thought! Sorry my wording is clunky, trying to work some scenarios out...

  9. My favorite part of this post is when you appeal to personal responsibility. "Reimagining and reconfiguring those environments might implicate me, as both cause and solution. I might have to make some changes." Although it poses as a form of accountability, blaming the rotten apples is a way of avoiding accountability for ourselves, by focusing us on other peoples' responsibilities rather than our own. Now, to what degree is behavior a matter of will or personal virtue for which we can claim credit, and to what precise degree is it a matter of environment? We know the interactions are complex (if there is such a thing as will), but I don't think we know the exact balance. But we don't need to: we can focus on what we can do, instead of blaming people who are (like us) always some obscure mixture of victim and offender. Regardless of the mixture, we obviously can and should shape our environments, to make it easier for all of us to be good. That is the essence of personal responsibility. The "bad apples" position poses as the one that supports personal responsibility, but it is nothing of the sort.

  10. can't you find a way of engaging with the issue rather than just awfully vague labelling, Tom?

  11. This is, perhaps, what Ephesians 6.12 is talking about.

    "For we wrestle
    not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against
    powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against
    spiritual wickedness in high places."

    We do not condemn or judge individuals. Rather, we battle against the systems that enslave them.

  12. Has it ever occurred to you to explore some of the more recent counter-arguments...those that do not deny correspondence bias out of hand but push it quite a bit harder in critique than your readership is likely to do on its own?  

    Once again, we have a world divided cleanly into two groups:  the cognoscenti whose politics is strictly informed by the secret knowledge of correspondence bias, and the knuckle-dragging hordes whose politics denies that phenomenon's existence, and ne'er the twain shall meet.Isn't it a bit more *ahem* scientific to allow that correspondence bias theory has some explanatory power but that such power is not as open-and-shut a case as your (preferred and highly polemical) term, "FUNDAMENTAL attribution ERROR" would imply?  Why do you suppose that some scholars who appeal to it prefer the less freighted term, "correspondence bias?"  Could it be that your liberation-theology worldview is creating a recursive, self-justifying logic?Cheerfully,qb

  13. Bruce, I was hoping that the smiley face would tip my ironic hand....

    I found Richard’s post very informative and insightful. I also had the thought that it isn’t unusual for academic types to focus more on systems, whilst retired pig farmers like me (very few at that!) are probably more focused on the stereotypicals of personal responsibility. I’m sure that the truth is really somewhere medial to those polarities. In any event, at my age, I just don’t get too torqued about it. Yes, we can and should and do make systematic changes. But I’ve been around enough to see that some individuals will figure out a way to screw the “perfect system” or will continue to be excluded by the system for whatever reasons.  Systems are as problematic as people, maybe more so.


  14. One is reminded of Zimbardo's talk on the psychology of evil.

  15. I've always found it curious that discussions about the Milgram experiment rarely address the individuals who refused to go further.  Even the film that Milgram made about the experiment is edited in such a way as to downplay that aspect.

  16. No matter how the apple got bad, unfortunately we still throw them out of the barrel as fast as possible.  If you can find another use for bad apples, by all means, do it and fix the reason they went bad while your at it. Nothing you said changes the fact that "one bad apple spoils the whole bunch" and we already have enough bad bunches and apologist for the bad apples and bunches.

  17. I think I would first ask, how do I save the balance of the good apples, which might or might not include a problem with the barrel.

  18.  I don't know you, so I don't wish to assume too much about your intentions and tone, but I seriously doubt you're going to effectively influence many folks when you insult their critical thinking abilities. Clearly this topic triggers something in you. Others could respond just as grumpily by suggesting that it could be an individualistic libertarian worldview that creates this prickly reaction. But, again, that could be assuming too much . . .

  19. Jonathan, you have a point. qb's prickliness is clearly a product of his worldview, as others' condescension is clearly a product of their worldview. But I don't see qb really insulting anyone's critical thinking ability. Rather, I see him, in his own prickly way, exposing a postthat does insult the critical thinking ability of anyone who might disagree with the point it is making.

    This post simply disguises the insult in an extremely common three-step process: 1) use the word "we" to talk about those who disagree with the point you are making; 2) without actually examining the ambiguous state of the evidence, say that an abstract field (social psychology) "has long known" that when "we" disagree with the point you are making, this is "well, an error"; 3) use a scientific-sounding label that puts down "us" for disagreeing with the point you are making.

    The overall effect is to deny the complexity of reality--to rhetorically obscure the fact that some evidence suggests that some social environments condition some responses, but some evidence suggests that some people are indeed the product of their own choices. By overlooking this fact, one can portray any disagreement as uncritical, unthinking, uninformed bias.

  20. I don't see how this post insults critical thinking. It may be rather simplistic, but Richard's view is much more representative of social and ecological research, including neuroscientific evidence that conscious free will and choice are problematic at best. So, yes, while the issue is rather complicated, I think the onus is on the "pro-choice" folks to explain phenomenon such as why the majority of imprisoned people are lower-class people of color, and to explain it without inching toward racism. Structure and agency certainly have a complex emergence relationship even as we are deeply influenced by multiple "environments": genetic, social, political, economic, religious, etc. 

  21.  Also, I may have just interpreted the post differently. While I have little sympathy for the right-wing individual liberty schtick, I am also uninterested in "environmental determinism." But I didn't hear Richard arguing for the latter, hence his call that we make some changes.

  22. I'm a fan of Richard, but allergic to titles like "fundamental attribution error" (which he didn't make up). It's the label that seems to me to insinuate that ANY time I make certain sorts of judgments, I am simply committing an error (rather than, for example, thinking). That's the insult I saw to others' critical thinking.

    As you say, the post struck us differently--Richard doesn't claim environmental determinism, but the label seems to tell me that I'm in error whenever I am less of an environmental determinist than whoever uses the label!

  23. Thanks for the response. A fair enough point, although I do think it would be an error to solely operate with a theory of personal choice without major attention given to our many overlapping contexts. And, usually, environmental determinism is a bit of a red herring: even sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson no longer ascribe to it, instead favoring coevolutionary adaptation.

  24. Right, Jonathan. Though I'd also say that pure personal choice is a red herring. The question is, which are we more likely to over-value, and which sort of over-valuing is the greater danger (in our modern liberal society). qb's answer is obviously different from Richard's. qb expresses one worry with prickliness; Richard expresses the opposite worry with a scientific-sounding diagnosis. For my money, the scientific-sounding diagnosis is far more insulting (to critical thinking) than the prickliness.

  25. I admit I'm not convinced it is a complete red herring. I know plenty of people who do seem to espouse a purely personal choice theory of human action. Our modern liberal society prizes the notion of personal choice; positions commonly referred to as conservative and liberal both fall under the auspices of modern liberalism. Also, why is the "scientific-sounding diagnosis" more insulting to critical thinking? Seems to be that there's very little critical thinking involved in a knee-jerk response that blames bad apples.

  26. Good points. And just to answer, I meant that scientific-sounding diagnosis (by treating those who disagree as patients to be labelled, rather than as people who might help you learn something) is more insulting to critical thinking than qb's acerbic, prickly, invitation-to-duke-it-out questions. Labeling people as bad apples is extremely insulting, and I hope nobody (certainly not qb, certainly not me) would make that mistake.

  27. It may very well be, though it didn't strike me the same as it struck you. Thanks for the back-and-forth!

  28. An excellent article. The FAE is clearly an error of perspective, and it takes energy to overcome the error, ie, to achieve a more balanced perspective.

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