Fundamental Attribution Error – Judging People in a WEIRD Way

In his recent conversation with Indian TV journalis, Barkha Dutt, Tyler Cowen and and Dutt had the following exchange:
“Cowen: Plenty of Whites in the United States have resources, education, but is it possible the Brahmins of India who come to America — they’re better at cracking foreign cultural codes, they’re more used to diversity, they’re more used to strange environments? …
Dutt: I guess my hesitation in answering your question is that I hate essentialism. It’s the same way that I hate it when people say women are better leaders because we are more empathetic. …”
This part of the conversation really stuck with me. I found it really interesting that Cowen was trying to ask a question about what has made people from upper classes/castes in India become so successful with running companies in the United States (Sundar Pichai of Google is an example they mentioned). For Cowen, this was a normal seeming question, but for Dutt, the question was WEIRDly weird. What she saw in the question was an aspect of essentialism, which she seemed to view as a shortcut way of explaining complex social phenomenon by boiling something down to one particular element. For Dutt, she didn’t see success for people at the top group as entirely due to their own dispositions but in many ways as a result of how society has treated people who are at the top and who have vast resources. Rather than something essential about the individual, rather than being WEIRD and looking at individual dispositions, Dutt looked at people as part of a larger whole.
WEIRD people (Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic people) tend to see components rather than the whole. This means that when we look at individuals we don’t always see them in relation to society, but as individual actors with specific traits. Cowen’s question demonstrates this default way of thinking and how we judge ourselves and others.
In his book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich writes about how dispositional ways of thinking about ourselves and others leads to both Cognitive Dissonance and Fundamental Attribution Error. Henrich writes,
“In WEIRD societies, the pressure to cultivate traits that are consistent across contexts and relationships leads to dispositionalism – a tendency to see people’s behavior as anchored in personality traits that influence their actions across many contexts. For example, the fact that he’s lazy (a disposition) explains why he’s not getting his work done.” We look at an individual, judge their behavior and the things they say and determine something fundamental about who they are. From this judgment we make predictions about them, treat them a certain way, and justify rewards or punishments that they receive. When we look at ourselves, Henrich explains that we do complex mental gymnastics to dismiss negative traits and characteristics while convincing ourselves that we posses good traits. Henrich continues,
“The available evidence suggests that WEIRD people suffer more severely from Cognitive Dissonance and do a range of mental gymnastics to relieve their discomfort. Second, dispositional thinking also influences how we judge others. Psychologists label this phenomenon Fundamental Attribution Error, though it’s clearly not that fundamental; it’s weird.”
Our tendency toward dispositionalism and essentialism is more common in WEIRD societies than in other societies. We make judgments about other people based on how we see them act and behave in one context. We project traits associate with that behavior onto the individual and assume that those traits are consistent across all contexts and relationships for the individual. We further project those traits among broader groups to which the individual belongs. And this can lead to many problems like bias (both positive and negative), discrimination, halo effects, and segregation. We lock up criminals for a long time because we assume they are purely evil. We hear a passionate campaign speech and assume a political figure and their party can do no wrong. We segregate our neighborhoods economically so that we can get away from lazy people who can’t hold good jobs. All of these are examples of us making a WEIRD judgment about an individual’s dispositions and projecting specific traits across all contexts for the individual and the groups to which they belong. We make fundamental errors in this attribution process and that can be quite damaging for ourselves and society in the long run. This is a WEIRD way to think about the world, and something we should be aware of as we try to understand ourselves and our societies.

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