As you push open the door
to leave a building, a man shouts obscenities at you. What a rude
man, you think. But unbeknownst to you, when you flung open the door
you hit the man in the face. You interpreted the event in terms of
the man's personality traits (he's rude), and ignored the situation
which caused him to behave this way (you hit him in the face with a
door). You've fallen prey to circumstantial blindness.
In psychology, this
phenomena is known as the fundamental attribution error (or
correspondence bias). These terms refer to the tendency to
presume that a particular situation is best explained by the
(internal) personality traits of the people involved, not the
(external) circumstances surrounding those people. In other words,
when we observe an event we tend to process it in terms of what it
tells us about the people involved, and underestimate the importance
of the context within which the event occurred.
In 1967, Edward Jones and
Victor Harris ran an experiment in which subjects were asked to assess
a person's attitude towards Fidel Castro based on an essay they had
written. In one of the studies, the subjects were told that a coin
had been tossed to determine whether the writer would pen a
pro-Castro essay, or an anti-Castro essay – that is, the essays did
not represent the attitudes of their writers, and the
presented attitudes had been assigned at random. Despite being told
this, the subjects consistently assigned pro-Castro sentiments to the
authors of essays that expressed a positive view of Castro and vice
versa. Even being told that circumstances were the root cause of what
was written, people still linked their impression of the text
directly to the attitude of its writer.
Jones & Harris used
the term correspondence bias to represent this discovery, and the
experiment caused Jones to observe:
I have a
candidate for the most robust and repeatable finding in social
psychology: the tendency to see behaviour as caused by a stable
personal disposition of the actor when it can be just as easily
explained as a natural response to more than adequate situational
This work was later
pursued by Lee Ross and his team in the 1970s, who first coined the
rather clunky term fundamental attribution error (or FAE) for the
phenomena. A simpler way to understand the concept is with the phrase
it's not you, it's here, or
to put it another way: people are 'victims of circumstances' more often
than we think.
one of Ross' most striking experiments. Subjects observed two sets
of basketball players shooting hoops indoors, but were not told that
while one of the two groups was playing, the lighting in the gym had
been lowered. Needless to say, the players in low lighting conditions
did not play as well as those in the well-lit gym. Nonetheless, the
subjects consistently attributed the poor performance to the player's
lack of skill, not to the lighting conditions in the gym.
In another experiment,
subjects were placed into pairs and randomly assigned the role of
questioner and answerer for a general knowledge quiz. During a
preparation interval, both subjects created a set of difficult
questions on whatever subject they choose, then during the test the
questioner asked their questions to the answerer. Afterwards, they
were asked to rate each other on a number of different traits.
Everyone involved knew the circumstances behind the test, but
nonetheless they consistently tended to rate the questioner
as having better general knowledge skills, despite the fact that they
had chosen questions from their own areas of expertise.
This finding – that
people tend to explain events in terms of personal characteristics
even when there was a clear situational influence – caused some
economists to believe that personality could be all but
ignored and that only the circumstances needed to be taken into
account, although work by Brent Roberts challenges this view, and
confirms that personality does indeed play a critical role in life.
It's not that personality doesn't matter, it is simply that we tend
to prefer explanations in
terms of personality to those in terms of circumstance.
At least, we do when we're
dealing with other people. It seems that while we are too quick to
explain the behaviour of other people in terms of their nature, we
naturally tend to explain (or perhaps, excuse) our own actions in
terms of the situation. Jones and Nisbett call this the
actor-observer bias, or to
put it another way: if you do it, it's your fault; if I do it, I'm a
victim of circumstances.
So is correspondence bias
another bug in the human operating system, like cognitive dissonance?
Well, yes and no. Research by J.G. Miller has revealed that this
effect varies according to culture, so it is not part of the
underlying wetware (like cognitive dissonance), but rather something
we learn. In Western, individualistic societies the tendency to
circumstantial blindness is quite pronounced. Yet in Eastern,
collectivist societies the reverse tendency has been demonstrated –
explanations in terms of situation are often preferred to those in
terms of personal traits.
psychological phenomena are well documented, and even quite widely
distributed (the popular book The Tipping Point, by Malcolm
Gladwell, discusses the fundamental attribution error, for instance)
we are a long way short of fully appreciating their implications. If
we tend to turn to explanations in terms of personality too easily,
what does this mean for our societies?
One particular consequence
of note has been explored by Donald Dripps in the context of criminal
justice: because of circumstantial blindness, we are frequently too
certain in our application of blame. In his paper, Fundamental
Retribution Error: Criminal Justice and the Social Psychology of
Blame, he suggests:
actual practice of criminal justice, we frequently give legal force
to intuitive judgements of personal responsibility, and this practice
is approved by many strands of both popular theory and prevailing
practice. But our intuitions about blame are not to be trusted. What
criminal law reformers can learn from the research on FAE—and it
may be all we can learn from it—is that we should reach judgements
of blame with as much humility as possible.
We learn to trust our
judgements, because to doubt them constantly is the path to
insecurity and madness. Yet in the case of other people's behaviour,
we would do well to remember that the context within which events
unfold are like a secret actor, working unseen from behind the
scenes, but with as much a part to play in what occurs as the people