The Attribution Fallacy

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

That is the pithy, if somewhat unkind, way of defining the Attribution Fallacy. I wanted to highlight this one because it’s one that I know I commit regularly and maybe explaining it here will help me to purge myself of it.

The fallacy is committed when you ascribe too much importance to internal characteristics rather than situational attributes when trying to explain behaviour. Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

If you’re walking down the road and you trip you assume that this is an especially treacherous bit of road that requires extra care. If you see someone else trip as they walk down the road you assume they are a clumsy oaf.

I know I do it with the current Government of the UK. Countries are incredibly complicated things and must be devilishly difficult to govern. When the Government comes up with some law or policy that I disagree with I assume that its because they’re a bunch of malicious, spiteful, over-privileged, evil toss pots; but this isn’t necessarily the case, it could just be that they’re idiots reacting to whatever difficult situation they happen to find themselves in.

There is not a solid understanding yet of why we do this, though there are several hypotheses. One is the idea that we need to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Assigning a negative outcome as due to someone’s disposition rather than the situation they find themselves in satisfies our need to believe that the world is fair; it comforts us psychologically. One particularly egregious outcome of this is the commonplace practice to blame victims of rape and domestic abuse for their situation. If we believe that they somehow brought it on themselves by their own behaviour then it makes us feel like it couldn’t happen to us because we wouldn’t behave that way.

Another hypothesis is that when we observe another person we are keenly aware of the individual but the situation they are in is merely background that we don’t tend to notice. When it comes to ourselves we are much more keenly aware of the situation in which we find ourselves and the external factors acting upon us and so we can more easily assign negative outcomes to them than in the case of others.

Most generally, it goes part way to explaining attitudes to out-groups, people who don’t belong to the same tribe as us. Whether it be politically, religiously, nationally or just those guys from Shelbyville, we find it very easy to assign deliberate acts of malice to anyone we think different from ourselves. Try not to do it.

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