Thursday 30 July 2015

The fundamental attribution error

Have just read a very interesting and quite frankly disturbing article on the above mentioned hypothesis.  No time to edit this tonight but posting it anyway!

Sabini, Siempann and Stein (2001) question three 'taken as given' assumptions of social psychology and question them - in particular the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

The FAE is when a person acts in a certain way and 'you' then attribute this behaviour to an internal disposition, rather than to an external situational factor.  In other words we tend to underestimate the effect of the situation and over estimate internal factors.  

For example, in the Milgram experiments, people acted against their consciences because they were told to by a person in authority.  Despite not wanting to shock someone, they still did so.  In the Asch experiments people folded to peer pressure, and lied about how long a line was in order to conform to other group members.  And, in the Darley and Latane experiments people would not intervene in a bad situation if more than three bystanders were also not intervening.  E.g. a woman is being beaten up by a little guy (so no fear of you being hurt) but 'you' will not stop it as long as at least three people do not move to help.  Basically, all this research suggests that we (people) fold waaay quicker than we think we do.  The situation dictates not the internal disposition.

Now, if you are like me, you hate the idea of being lumped in with the participants of these experiements.  If it was us, we wouldn't have shocked the guy!  We would step in and help a person who needed it etc.  But, unless you have read Milgram's book this is ignorance.  Because every single other person thought the same thing and then FOLDED.  Actually, not everyone but way too many for use to be getting cocky about our own behaviour.  

But Sabini et al have a different interpretation and one I tend to agree with due to my studies.  They suggest that all these behaviours can be explained by internal dispositions.  In particular, the need to avoid embarrassment and to avoid losing face.  Sabini et al unpack the research and place this internal factor at the centre of each one, and make a case that this internal factor is the real key.  The internal factor is - Fear of embarrassment and of losing face. 

They conclude that Americans, known as the most non-mitigating people, are in fact more prone to embarrassment and fear of losing face than we have thought.

My thoughts are - heaven help the Kiwis then because we are way down the scale from the Americans.  


  1. Also interesting... and I'd like to play Devil's advocate...

    It seems like it's pretty hard to measure the internal stuff. You can observe the behaviours resulting from the experiment but I would think that everything after this is speculation and post hoc analysis and reinterpretation... not saying it's wrong... just tricky...

    Another issue relates to the nature of the experiment: can you compare the potential electro shock and assault with specific educational interventions? I guess you can, but they seem at odds on at least one level due to the potential physical threat involved. I realise that maths anxiety works in a similar way though at least in neurological terms.

    The other thing relates to your post the other day: Is the macro level success of something like a YG class related to the larger economic success cycle? If it is (as I think you were suggesting), then what is the effect on the micro level? Perhaps some kind of chaos theory butterfly effect is in play... in which case, perhaps it is the external situation... but not the classroom... the whole economy and the larger economic situation is determining the poor classroom response and behaviours right down to the individual level (and fear is a result not a cause)...

    Again, just being the devil in the details here, but isn't that what your other post (or at least the UK article reference) implies?

  2. Early morning here so a little brain dead... Yip, there are lots of people who interpret the results differently, but all would agree that people did things they knew where wrong, because of something. It wasn't fear of being hurt as the experiments all controlled for personal physical harm.

    Even though people wanted to act in an alternative way, they did not. The application to education is this - a student knows that learning maths is about speaking up, and engaging in arguments, asking questions to the tutor and trying things even when they are wrong - but they don't, because they are more concerned with 'image -management'. How they are perceived by others in the immediate moment trumps all.

    Re the micro- macro we can definitely see that the employment rate (a measure of economic activity) impacts the classroom. As programmes are forced to take candidates less likely to succeed (lower skills, less self regulation, less motivation), it creates an environment less conducive to great learning. Here is a contentious research finding expressed bluntly: 'Generally' the average kid in a smart class is smarted than the top kid in an average class.

    Very unpopular. It means that hanging out with smart people makes you smarter and vice versa.

    Not saying I agree, but there is evidence to suggest as much - if anyone is interested look up 'executive education'.

    So yes, macro movements do have an effect. I may have to delet this post before the hate mail comes my way!

  3. Don't delete yet... these posts are the most interesting things you've published so far...! Here's a thing that I read recently: "You're the average of the 5 people that you spend the most time with"

    This resonates with your hanging around with smart people makes you smarter statement... There's some wisdom there.

    But I still see no solution for the at risk group of learners that are under the microscope here.

    Military boot camp? Gap year? Internship? Overseas travel? Get a job a McDonalds?

    Almost anything seems like it would work better than being at school or in low quality vocational training.

  4. I guess a - 'So what works' post is due. No more Mr negative.