Monday, September 26, 2016

Fascinating False Attributions and Representative Heuristics

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).

We've already visited a few biases that concern attribution errors, but I hesitate to address some of them because they can quickly become personally painful. I can trace most of my relationship mistakes and boundary issues directly back to them, and in many ways, I feel as if I never learn – or at least not fast enough. There's a chapter in the Book of Matthew that explains how to deal with harsh critics, and it doesn't promise a happy ending. It was quite influential when I left my spiritually abusive church, but I'm slow to consider it and take no pleasure in it. It explains that you should move on if you're not well-received, and it's not a fun process.

In this passage which speaks about shaking the dust off your feet as you depart towns that reject you, I've long struggled with an analogy that it makes. It says to be both as wise (shrewd) as a serpent yet as innocent (harmless) as a dove. I like the dove part of it, but when deeply contemplating it when I first left my church, I realized that the dove is an animal of sacrifice. The serpent is the predator, and I spent a good deal of time studying the habits of serpents afterward. I don't know that I've learned that much so as to develop a better blend of wise innocence, but I think often of this paradoxical idea as I recognize my own problematic and habitual biases. They pop up when I engage interpersonal conflict, and it requires a lot of vigilance and effort to remain mindful of my own patterns.


Heuristics are the shortcuts or 'rules of thumb' that we take through much information which allow us to make more timely decisions. We don't have the available time to examine everything, so we make snap judgements about things that we identify as more benign or obvious. A man dressed as a policeman must be a policeman, and the nice old lady surely must be a nice old lady. We identify certain characteristics that are easy to see as representatives or prototypes for what we already know and understand. We also tend toward heuristics when thinking about how a new situation will likely unfold by recalling a previous chain of events in our past.

Sometimes, heuristics can help us, but it is just as likely that we will fall prey to our own cognitive biases when we rely on them too much when making crucial decisions. We put too much stock in the idea that the new subject of our interest will be like the prototype that we hold in our memories – provided that we even recall them accurately. For this reason, Robert Cialdini refers to heuristics as 'weapons of influence.' Our biases tend to put us in a favorable light and tend to downplay the success of others. My personal tendency leans towards thinking of professionals in helping professions in a positive light, assuming that they chose their course in life for wholesome and inspired reasons. (It's all doves and no serpents.) I usually suffer much disappointment, and I'm still astonished after a conflict ends because I don't tend to grasp things well until the end.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

It seems that when trying to understand the behavior of others, we place far more attention on the superficial or more salient characteristics of individuals instead of on situations. It is not much different than the self-serving bias which also happens to be an error in attribution. If someone steps on my foot or cuts me off when driving on the highway, I'm more likely to call them a reckless jerk. If I make the same error, I have more flattering reasons as to why I didn't perform up to par – not that I'm a jerk (even if I am). If I failed a test, I have some more gentle reasons in mind as to why I failed. The test was unfair or I had a headache. If a classmate failed, it was all because they didn't study or just didn't have what it took to pass the test.


Thinking about the jerk on the highway, I now think of my car as an example of this bias. My husband and I have happily owned Subarus for about the past 25 years. While waiting for service on my car in a crowded waiting room a couple of years ago, when I claimed the Subaru, another fellow seemed quite surprised. He actually said that I couldn't possibly own one because only scientists and weird engineers drove them. At the time, I lived quite close to Motown, so foreign cars weren't all that desirable. I imagine that when making traffic errors, I was likely called choice names, and the make of my car would not have helped.

In the small diagram, I placed a Subaru silhouette at the top and a comparison of four different men to demonstrate that all are men, but each person might pick a different one as the prototypical male that represents them. Along with that image there comes the bias that is based on what that individual knows as their own representative image. We think of such things as rather objective and fixed for us in our own minds, but they are far more subjective than we'd like to admit.

No one individual ever perfectly fits the prototype or the group norm into which they fall. We can be easily mislead by looking at averages and arithmetic means, for no one person ever truly fits. We all have our unique warts and foibles. Perhaps those types of errors are the most common ones and carry the most damaging consequences.

Safety in Recovery

Concerning safety in recovery from trauma, we can learn a great deal if we keep mindful of these biases – in ourselves and in others. Are we filling in the gaps about what we don't know to make a causality that works for us... but might work against someone else? Is someone else using one of these prejudices against us?

Watch how others make attributions. Question whether they're blaming you for things outside of your control or whether they are always in your favor. Do they see you as an individual or just a prototype – or a pawn without depth or uniqueness? Friends who are worthy of trust tell the truth and ask questions and will challenge your attribution errors. They will help you have a more rounded perspective. Be curious about people's motives. You can learn quite a bit about a person's mindset from the heuristics and the biases that they employ – and how often they rely upon them.

Be aware of the tendency to focus on the characteristics of an individual in snap decisions, and discipline yourself to also consider social or situational influences that may have resulted in what has happened. Stretch yourself by considering what it might be like to be in their position, and you'll be less likely to fall into attribution errors.

For Further Reading until the next post: