If you believe that people who join the army are braver and they love their country more than those who don’t, if you believe difficult goals can be achieved by willpower, if you consider resilience to be a character trait that only some people have it or that success is a matter of talent, perseverance, hard work, and wealth, then you make yourself guilty of fundamental attribution errors (FAE).
What is a fundamental attribution error?
A fundamental attribution error is a correspondence bias. A sort of prejudice, but a more subtle one since the reason for bias isn’t the gender, race, or looks. It is an inner predisposition – inoculated nevertheless – to find reasons for someone’s actions in their personality and elude the context that generated those actions.
People who join the army mostly do it for economic, educational, and family background reasons. Predominantly, difficult goals can be achieved where willpower doesn’t need to be brought into play, where organized environments and habits are established. Resilience is highly dependent on environmental circumstances. And the highest predictors for success are set at birth: place, time, and to whom you were born.
How did FAE infest us all?
We’ve been fed with manipulative words of the spirit that keeps us under the spell: “they should have known better”, “you got what was coming to you”, “what goes around comes around”, “chickens come home to roost”, “everything happens for a reason”, “you reap what you sow”.
Educated people tend to find the inner cause of every action one takes. And although their assessment might be right, it is only partially right because there is always another factor that causes that same action: context.
Uneducated people tend to blame the system. Educated people tend to blame the character. Both sides are right. But what we miss when blaming the character is that only educated people can actually do something in changing their behavior. Uneducated people need the system to change. You need lots of previous education to understand what a fundamental attribution error is.
It is beside the purpose to teach morality to a starving man by explaining to him why stealing isn’t the right thing to do. If the context doesn’t allow him to feed himself, preaching him the means of doing the right thing by the system that punishes theft becomes synonymous with preaching him to commit suicide by starvation.
As a science, psychology is partially blamable for the inoculation of fundamental attribution error. Being centered on the study of the individual, trying to help him find a reason for everything that has ever happened to him, and the individual’s need for that to have happened, psychology makes society seem like it is the result of the individual’s actions. Although it gives the individual a sense of coherence, belonging, and willpower, psychology also gives him the arsenal to investigate the world as such.
Power of the system.
The fundamental attribution error is the greatest power of those holding power. They use it to protect the system that endows them with power, the same system that allows people to starve, or not have access to proper medical care. Those in power preach the guilt of people’s lack of willpower to do better to cover their guilt of holding the power.
Even the belief in a just world is such a manipulative instrument. “Getting what you deserve” is the ultimate key to people’s free will. Even religion does it. But we all know that isn’t true. If it is a universal, cosmic, divine law, it can’t only apply to some of us. It should be the same for all. But it is so mostly for those who don’t hold any rein of any kind of power.
The hardest aspect to accept is that we all make ourselves guilty of this kind of bias. We’ve been inoculated the idea that everything happens for a reason, that there is a destined order we are meant to follow, and any deflection will be punished.
This is what justifies the aversion we experience for those in need. This is why we don’t intervene when someone is at their worst and why we despise the victims. This is why we validate those at the top. Because, deep down, we believe they deserve it. They must have done something if they are being punished like that.
When bad things happen to other people, we trust this just world to make something right by it. It is the way we protect the system that keeps us far away from the possibility that something similar will ever happen to us.
How to overcome this unacceptable bias?
First, by not indulging yourself by using this to run from the responsibility you still have in everything that happens to you. We still need to self-improve. Intelligence, self-control, and psychological flexibility are still needed if we want to survive a context or make the best of it.
Second, we should consciously give importance to the context. Investigate it without relying on only what we already know. What we already know are other contexts that can only be similar but never identical. Search for particularities, because they are the ones that make people behave so different.
Third, never be sure of what you think you know. You might also be wrong.