Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Pull Your Head Out to Avoid Variations on Attribution Errors

Just a reminder that the purpose of this discussion aims at stimulating thought and self awareness as tools to help those in recovery from trauma learn how to make safer choices. To make the discussion more jocular, we've defined Cognitive Biases as “CranioRectal Inversions” (CRI).

Many cognitive biases tend to point out the same errors in thought but with subtly different emphases.  I think that these errors in attribution that are also somewhat self-serving are worth looking at because they demonstrate how fragile our perspective can be without a balance of circumspection and introspection.

When learning something new, we start with what we already know and understand, and if we are observant and mindful, we can learn much about ourselves. We can also pick up on cues about how others tend to see themselves and how we all come together in our intersections in the world as well. So we start at the center of our understanding until we have a broader base for comparison and contrast, and we find ourselves at that center of things. We also cast ourselves in a favorable role when thinking about motives and behaviors. We're good people and we like to think that others think of us that way, too.

Overlapping Attribution Errors

The Fundamental Attribution Error is sometimes called the Correspondence Error, and we tend to think of ourselves as a bit better than others when we do the same things or make the same mistakes. We have a fundamental bias to favor ourselves – allowing us to be different when we may be alike others in many respects. But as a superficial measure without enough information, we can develop a whole scheme of who a person is – which may not be true at all.

And as previously noted, we tend to place a greater emphasis on the outward characteristics that are more salient and obvious to make quick judgements about people's behavior. We tend to think of them as a true manifestation of the person's character and ability when this may not be the case at all. It's all part of pitfall of using heuristics to help us cut through too much data. But when it comes to our own behavior, we focus on our internal reasons and discount or seem less aware of how we appear to others. This tendency has been given its very own term as the Actor-Observer Bias.

When you are the person in an active role in an exchange, your frame of reference seems to be much different when attributing a negative outcome to a particular cause. Perhaps it happens because the actor doesn't observe their own behavior at all, but the observer can see them from a more objective place. 

The conflicts that arise from the Actor-Observer Bias tend to degrade into a “They started it!” contention. Each party becomes locked tightly to their perspective and less willing to consider any other possible interpretation.  Rather than a matter of perspective, the lack of congruence can become a war to determine who is true and who is false.

It's helpful to be aware of our natural tendency to fall into this variation of Attribution Error -- amazingly powerful influences at times. If we can step back from conflicts to see them as a part of life and a part of interacting with one another, we can better consider a matter from the perspective of another person. We're always called to stretch and grow, and that is always a bit of work which humility facilitates. No one really wants to be locked into the landscape of this particular CranioRectal Inversion, and these types of attribution bias can often get the best of us. (But we need not let them.)

For Further Reading until the next post: