Fundamental Attribution Error - Judging People in a WEIRD Way

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.
Terrorist Motivations

Terrorist Motivations

One of the arguments that Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler make in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, is that we are not very good at accurately gauging the motivational reasons behind the actions of ourselves and others. We tend to look for large ideological and rational explanations for our behavior and the behavior of others. We often overlook simpler explanations of self-interest in favor of more high minded reasons for behavior.
If we recognize that we do a poor job of understanding the motivation of ourselves and others, then it is not surprising to learn that our assumptions of terrorist motivations are also often wrong. Steven Pinker demonstrates this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker specifically looks at suicide bomb terrorists and our general assumption that they are motivated by pure religious beliefs. This assumption, according to Pinker, is incomplete for many suicide bomb terrorists. Pinker writes,
“Using interviews with failed and prospective suicide terrorists, the anthropologist Scott Atran has refuted many common misconceptions about them. Far from being ignorant, impoverished, nihilistic, or mentally ill, suicide terrorists tend to be educated, middle class, morally engaged, and free of obvious psychopathy. Atran concluded that many of the motives may be found in nepotistic altruism.”
Pinker shows that there are a lot of pedestrian motivations for why individuals become suicide terrorists. Their motivation is not always a fervent ideological belief or hope for a spiritual reward of heavenly virgins. Pinker references Atran to show that some suicide terrorists are given the opportunity to have their debt cleared for future generations by going through with a suicide operation. Some suicide terrorists have had families kidnapped and threatened if the suicide bomber doesn’t go through with a bombing. Some terrorist groups offer substantial money to the surviving family members of the suicide terrorists. These monetary and family life motivations are what Atran refers to as nepotistic altruism.
We frequently make assumptions about others and about what motivates them. We make fun of others based on our assumptions, dismiss them, and are surprised to learn that our assumptions can be wrong. We are surprised when we see someone do something awful for motivations that we share with them. When we fail to understand motivation, we fail to understand what types of policies, rewards, and punishments might be useful in changing behaviors. It is important that we accept that we don’t fully understand the motivations of others and work to improve our perspectives so that we can better shape society to prevent things like suicide bomb terrorism.
Categories are Approximations

Categories Are Approximations

My last post was on the human tendency to put things into categories and how that can cause problems when things don’t fit nicely into the categories we have created. We like to define and group things based on shared characteristics, but those characteristics can have undefined edge cases. This isn’t a big deal when we are classifying types of mushrooms or shoes, but it can be a problem when we are classifying people and when we extend particular qualities of a group of people to everyone perceived as part of that group.
This post takes the danger in that idea a step further. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people tend to moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and condemnable ones to their enemies.” We create groups and view them as binaries. If we step back, we realize this doesn’t make sense when evaluating people, but nevertheless, we do it. We view an entire group of people as good or bad based on how we categorize them and based on a few salient traits of the category.
Pinker continues, “people tend to essentialize groups. As children, they tell experimenters that a baby whose parents have been switched at birth will speak the language of her biological rather than her adoptive parents.” When we get older we realize this is not the case, but it hints at a general disposition that humans have. We don’t focus highly on environment and contextual factors for people. We assume that essential characteristics of the group they belong to, whether or not those characteristics are actually valid, apply to every member, even if members are separated from the group and placed in a new context.
Categorizing people can end up with us placing people in a specific frame of reference that denies their individuality and humanity. We see people as inherently geared toward certain dispositions, simply because they share characteristics with other people we assume to have such dispositions. From this categorizing and these harmful tendencies follow xenophobia and racism. We wish to be seen as an individual ourselves, but we put others into categories and judge them to be inherently good or bad. We assume good people are all like us, and that all people like us are bad. Conversely, we assume all people unlike us are in some way bad, or that all bad people are unlike us. This oversimplified thought process fuels polarization and a host of negative thinking shortcuts that we have to overcome to live in a peaceful, equitable, and cooperative society.
Reactive Racism

Reactive Racism

An unfortunate reality in the United States is that there is a great deal of racial segregation across our states, cities, and communities. There are not a lot of spaces that manage to mix the different races, different socioeconomic status individuals, and different cultures that exist within our country. Many white people have almost exclusively white friends and social groups. Many wealthy people only engage with and interact with other similarly wealthy people. We don’t have a lot of voluntary institutions where different races come together willingly or where people of different socioeconomic status mix. I admit that this is the reality of my own life, as much as I wish it were not the case.
One consequence of this segregation is a misunderstanding of the power dynamics and direction of racism in our country. When we do not interact with people who are not like us in any deep or meaningful way, we can fail to understand the power dynamics of racism. We can fail to understand the structural and systemic factors of modern racism. In the end, this means that we misunderstand power dynamics, animosity, and the hatred that can flow between people of different races or social classes. I see this in my own life when people I know argue that black racism against whites is just as bad as any white racism against blacks. Black people who hold racist views against white people are sometimes used to excuse racist white people and in some cases they are used to turn the table and suggest that white people now face more discrimination than black people and other minorities.
What this argument seems to miss, however, is the role of power dynamics and the nature of reactionary racism. In 1993 when spending time trying to understand and write about homeless women for his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow noted this phenomenon. In the book he writes, “It is tempting to see white racism and black racism as mirror images of one another, made of the same kind of stuff. But white hatred of blacks appeared to be a purer, self-sustaining emotion that fed on itself. Black hatred of whites appeared to be more reactive, more dependent, feeding not on itself but on white hatred.”
Liebow’s argument is ultimately I think about power. White racism against black people seemed to stem from systemic and structural factors that enabled, and possibly even promoted, the disenfranchisement of black people for the gain of white people. The racism and hatred for white people that blacks held, on the other hand, seemed to be more reactionary. That is not to say that both forms of racism are terrible and can drive people toward atrocities, but it is important to note that Liebow could detect a leading force and a reactionary force. It is important to recognize the idea of reactive racism and the inherent power structures and dynamics it represents so that we don’t fall into the false equivalence argument that racism toward white people is just as bad in this country as white racism toward others.
Scrutinizing Causal Assumptions

Scrutinizing Causal Assumptions

Recently I have been writing about my biggest take-away from The Book of Why by Judea Pearl. The book is more technical than I can fully understand and grasp since it is written for a primarily academic audience with some knowledge of the fields that Pearl dives into, but I felt that I still was able to gain some insights from the book. Particularly, Pearl’s idea that humans are better causal thinkers than we typically give ourselves credit for was a big lesson for me. In thinking back on the book, I have been trying to recognize our powerful causal intuitions and to understand the ways in which our causal thinking can be trusted. Still, for me it feels that it can be dangerous to indulge our natural causal thinking tendencies.
However, Pearl offers guidance on how and when we can trust our causal instincts. he writes, “causal assumptions cannot be invented at our whim; they are subject to the scrutiny of data and can be falsified.”
Our ability to imagine different future states and to understand causality at an instinctual level has allowed our human species to move form hunter-gatherer groups to massive cities connected by electricity and Wi-Fi. However, our collective minds have also drawn causal connections between unfortunate events and imagined demons. Dictators have used implausible causal connections to justify eugenics and genocide and still to this day society is hampered by conspiracy theories that posit improbable causal links between disparate events.
The important thing to note, as Pearl demonstrates, is that causal assumptions can be falsified and must be supported with data. Supernatural demons cannot be falsified and wild conspiracy theories often lack any supporting data or evidence. We can intuit causal relations, but we must be able to test them in situations that would falsify our assumptions if we are to truly believe them. Pearl doesn’t simply argue that we are good causal thinkers and that we should blindly trust the causal assumptions that come naturally to our mind. Instead, he suggests that we lean into our causal faculties and test causal relationships and assumptions that are falsifiable and can be either supported or disproven by data. Statistics still has a role in this world, but importantly we are not looking at the data without making causal assumptions. We are making predictions and determining whether the data falsifies those predictions.
Informed Bets

Informed Bets

My last post was about limitations of the human mind and why we should be willing to doubt our conclusions and beliefs. This post contrasts my last post to argue that we can trust the informed bets that our brains make. Our brains and bodies do not have the capabilities to fully capture all of the information necessary to perfectly replicate reality in our minds, but they can do a good job putting information together in a way that helps us successfully navigate the world and our lives. Informed guesses, that is assumptions and intuitions based on experience and expertise rather than random and amateurish judgements, are actually very useful and often good approximations.


“Intelligence…” Gerd Gigerenzer writes in his book Risk Savvy, “is the art of making informed guesses.” Our brains make a lot of predictions and rely on heuristics, assumptions, and guesses to get by. It turns out that our brains do this well, as Gigerenzer argues in his book. We don’t need to pull out graph paper and a scientific calculator to catch a football. We don’t need to record every thought and action we have had over the last month to know if we are happy with our New Year’s resolutions and can keep them going. When we see someone standing in a long customer service line at the grocery store we don’t need to approach them with a 100 point questionnaire to know whether they are bored or upset.  Informed bets and reasonable guesses are sufficient for us to have decent and functional understanding of the world.


Gigerenzer continues, “Intelligence means going beyond the information given and making informed bets on what’s outside.” This quote is introduced after an optical illusion, where a grayscale checkerboard is shown with a figure casting a shadow across the board. Two squares on the board are the same shade of gray, yet our minds see the squares as different colors. Our minds are going beyond the information given, the literal wavelength of light reaching the back of our eyes, and making informed bets on the relative colors of the squares on the board if there was not a figure to cast a shadow. In the case of the visual illusion, our brain’s guess about reality is actually more helpful for us than the literal reality of the same colors of the squares in the image.


Bounded rationality is a serious concern. We cannot absorb all the information that exists in the world which may help us make better decisions. However, humans are intelligent. We can use the information we receive and make informed bets about the best choices and decisions available. We might not be perfect, but by making informed bets and educated guesses we can successfully come to understand the world and create systems and structures that help us improve our understanding over time.
Post Hoc Conclusions

Post Hoc Conclusions

Our minds see a lot of patterns that don’t exist. We make observations of randomness and find patterns that we assume to be based on a causal link when in reality no causal structure exists between our observations. This can happen in 3 point shooting in basketball, in observations of bomb locations in WWII London, and in music streaming services. We are primed to see patterns and causes, and we can construct them even when we shouldn’t. One contributing factor for incorrect pattern observation is that we tend to make post hoc conclusions, making observations after the fact without predicting what we might expect to see before hand.


Using the WWII example, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in the book Nudge show how people developed misconstructions of German bombing patterns in London during the war. The German bombing wasn’t precise, and there was no real pattern to the bombing raids and where bombs actually exploded across the city. Nevertheless, people mistakenly viewed a pattern in the random distribution of bombs. The authors describe the mistaken pattern identification by writing, “We often see patterns because we construct our informational tests only after looking at the evidence.”


People could map where bombs fell, and then create explanations for what targets the Germans were aiming at, for why the Germans would target a certain part of the city, and what strategic purpose the bombing was trying to accomplish. But these reasons are all post hoc constructions meant to satisfy a non-existent pattern that someone expected to find. We also see this in basketball, when a shooter makes a few baskets and is believed to have the hot hand or be on fire. In music streaming services, algorithms are actually tweaked to be less random, because listeners who hear two consecutive songs or more by the same band will assume the streaming isn’t randomizing the music, even though random chance will sometimes pick a string of songs from the same band or even from the same album.


The examples I mentioned in the previous paragraph are harmless cognitive errors stemming from poorly constructed post hoc explanations of phenomena.  However, post hoc conclusions based on non-existent patterns are important to consider because they can have real consequences in our lives and societies. If we are in a position to make important decisions for our families, our companies, or our communities, we should recognize that we possess the ability to be wildly wrong about observed patterns. It is important that we use better statistical techniques or listen to the experts who can honestly employ them to help us make decisions. We should not panic about meaningless stock market fluctuations and we should not incarcerate people based on poor crime statistic understandings. We should instead remember that our brains will look for patterns and find them even if they don’t actually exist. We should state assumptions before we make observations, rather than making post hoc conclusions on poor justifications for the patterns we want to see.
Rarely Stumped

Rarely Stumped

Daniel Kahneman starts one of the chapters in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.”


When I read this quote I am reminded of Gus, the father, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He is always ready to show how every word comes from a Greek root, even a Japanese word like kimono. He is sure of his intellect, sure that his heritage is perfect and is the foundation of all that is good in the world. He trusts his instincts and intuitions to a hilarious extent, even when he is clearly wrong and even when his decisions are gift-wrapped and planted in his mind in an almost Inception style.


His character is part caricature, but it is revealing of what Kahneman explains with the quote above. Our minds are good at finding intuitive answers that make sense of the world around us, even if we really don’t have any idea what is going on. We laugh at Gus and don’t consider ourselves to be guilty of behaving like him, but the only difference between most of us and Gus is that Gus is an exaggeration of the intuitive dogma and sense of self value and assurance that we all live with.


We scroll through social media, and trust that our initial judgment of a headline or post is the right frame for how to think about the issue. We are certain that our home remedy for tackling bug bites, cleaning windows, or curing a headache is based on sound science, even if it does nothing more than produce a placebo effect. We find a way to fit every aspect of our lives into a comprehensive framework where our decisions appear rational and justified, with us being the hero (or innocent victim if needed) of the story.


We should remember that we have a propensity to believe that we are always correct, that we are never stumped. We should pause, ask more questions, think about what is important to know before making a decision, and then deeply interrogate our thoughts to decide if we really have obtained meaningful information to inform our opinions, or if we are just acting on instinct, heuristics, self-interest, or out of groupthink. We cannot continue believing we are right, pushing baseless beliefs onto others when we have no real knowledge of an issue. We shouldn’t assume things are true just because they happen to align with the story we want to believe about ourselves and the world. When it comes to crucial issues and our interactions and relationships with others, we need to think more critically, and recognize when we are assuming we are right. If we can pause at those times and think more deeply, gather more information, ask more questions of our selves, we can have more accurate and honest interactions and relationships. Hopefully this will help us have more meaningful lives that better connect and better develop the community we all need in order to thrive.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.


Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.


Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.


We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.