Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Fundamental Attribution Error

On Saturday, January 15, 2011, two brothers were killed in an avalanche at a popular ski touring location in Kanaskasis Country. Almost immediately, the internet pundits came out to critique the actions of the victims with the ostensible goal of "learning from their mistakes." These critiques follow a simple and unvarying pattern: a few glaringly obvious errors may be pointed out, while subtle contributing causes almost invariably remain invisible, a small amount of token sympathy, but no real empathy will be expressed, and, finally, the victims are universally condemned as causing their own demise/injury.

Key to the pundits reactions is the attribution made for the accident/incident which, also invariably, will be internal. That is, the victim, through generally unchanging and personal characteristics, such as lack of knowledge or intelligence, caused their own demise. Interestingly, if the pundits ever (which they frequently do) get caught in an accident or incident of their own, the attribution made for their mishap will, also invariably, be external. That is, the fault of the weather, the map, a companion, their route description, etc.

Psychologists and sociologists call this fundamental attribution error. Essentially, when we assess our own behavior, we over-value situational contributions while under-valuing personality based explanations. When assessing the behavior of others, we do the opposite. Thus, we defend our own actions, while lambasting others for theirs.

In fact, if the pundits truly wanted to learn from someone's mistakes, who better than their own to learn from. But, facing up to our own inadequacies seldom gives us the ego boost we get by condemning the actions of others and requires that we take some action to correct our own inadequacies, and where's the fun in that?

 Arguing over where we are.  Whose fault is it that we are lost?

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