… may well turn out to be this one, by Michael Druker at Psystenance. It’s about a conceptual error that lies at the root of a lot of bad transit planning decisions, an error made, at one time or another, by most citizens, many political leaders, and more than a few professionals. It’s called (not very effectively) the Fundamental Attribution Error. It happens when we say or believe statements of the form: “My decisions are based on my situation, but other people’s choices are based on their culture, the kind of people they are.”
[Situation includes relevant factors that the person can be consciously aware of, including their location, destination, available infrastructure, available vehicles, special needs (wheelchairs, traveling with children, etc) and the relative value of time and money.]
Psychologists have observed that, in general, humans tend to overestimate the rationality of their own decisions, and underestimate the rationality of other people’s. We tend to think that we make rational choices ourselves. Too often, it’s easy to form stereotypes about people whose different situation has caused them to make a different choice. Before long you’re hearing about categories like “the kind of people who ride the bus” as opposed to “people who ride rail” as opposed to “lycra cyclists” and “the car culture.” The mistake here is to explain people’s behavior by assigning them to a cultural category, rather than by understanding their situation.
We’ve all heard the term “car culture” about places like Los Angeles. I’ve always hated the term, but now I understand why: it’s an expression of the attribution error. When we say that Americans drive because they’re a car culture, we imply that the choice of most Americans to drive isn’t a rational one, in light of each person’s situation, and therefore requires a cultural explanation.
But in the places most Americans live, given the current economics of driving, and transit options being as they are, the decision to drive is rational for most of the people making it. If most Americans are in situations where driving is the rational choice, we don’t need the “car culture” to explain their behavior. We can see a clearer path to changing it by helping to change people’s situations.
Conversely, car advocates who cite current car use as evidence that people want to drive cars are also making the attribution error; they’re implying that everyone who rationally chooses to drive is culturally committed to driving. That’s wrong; some of the people driving cars would like to be in a situation where they didn’t have to.
That’s why I never talk about a need to “change the culture.” Culture changes over time, but by its nature it also resists change because it’s made up of deeply held feelings and attachments that most people don’t want to recognize and critique in themselves. Nobody likes being told that their behavior is the result of their culture. So defining America’s car dependence as cultural is not a route to changing it. In fact, it plays right into conservative critiques of urbanism as social engineering.
The fundamental attribution error has deep philosophical roots. Jacques Lacan argued that the crucial stage in the development of a small child is the moment when he looks in the mirror for the first time and sees how he resembles the other people in his world. At this moment, he discovers that he is the same kind of being as the people he sees. Until that moment, a baby is a consciousness interacting with sense perceptions, attaching to some and not others, but with no ability to imagine that there are other nodes of consciousness, similar to his own, all around him.
We all get through this development stage imperfectly. Often it’s said of a very arrogant person that “other people just aren’t real for him.” Categorizing others too readily is just a retreat to the pre-mirror state of the child, a state in which I am real and everyone else is just stuff happening around me. Categorizing is completely understandable: When we are functioning in a complex society, we need ways of identifying threats, just as our ancestors on the African savanna did, so we tend to put others in large mental categories that help us make sense of them. Racism arises from that impulse, but so do categories like “the type of people who ride the bus.” As with racism, we only get beyond it with some hard work in taking control of our own mental processes, and remembering the lesson of the mirror stage.
(This post was updated and expanded on March 16 at 11:00 PM Sydney time, in response to early comments.)
Further update, March 17:
This may be one of the most misunderstood posts in the short history of Human Transit, and I take responsibility for that if that is the case. At the risk of getting deeper into the mire, let me expand a little in response to some of the critical comments and commentary to date.
First, there’s been much discussion of sociology in the comments, so let me clarify, as several commenters also have: Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is psychology, not sociology. It describes a common mistaken view of individuals, described from the perspective of their own consciousness. For that reason, its reference to “situation” includes just the data available to the conscious mind, not including unconscious motivations such as personality or cultural conditioning. (FAE doesn’t imply that those unconscious motivations don’t exist, only that we tend to overstate their influence in describing the actions of others.)
My description of it here is not an accusation toward anyone. I’m saying only that psychology has found that a tendency toward attribution error is a feature of human minds in general. This does not imply that anybody’s motivations are totally irrational or totally rational, nor does it require us to speculate about how much irrationality is cultural — a question that really would lead into sociology. It observes only that average humans are likely to overestimate the rationality of their own choices and underestimate the rationality of other people’s.
Racism is a much more vivid example of the same kind of phenomenon, so it may be useful as an analogy. (To be excessively clear, I am not equating racism with attribution bias, nor am I implying that one is as bad as the other. I’m observing that they are biases of the same kind — different sizes but the same shape — so that the workings of one can be understood by analogy to the workings of the other.)
Psychology finds that many people who are not racist in daily life will still make racial distinctions in quick-response tests where there is no time to think. (Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink discusses an example of this in detail.) The instinct to judge others based on categories of appearance such as race is understandable if you consider the needs under which the human brain evolved. Like other mammals, primitive humans had no choice but to make quick friend-or-enemy judgments based on appearance and behavior. Racism is one effect of that same instinct still working under the surface in modern brains. Like aggression, racism arises from an instinct that served our evolutionary ancestors’ needs but is a problem in modern society, and that has not had time to evolve away. This suggests that those of us who see ourselves as not racist are putting a certain effort into compensating for the mind’s primitive instinct to categorize other people racially. I’m certainly aware that I’m doing that.
The FAE demands the same kind of awareness and compensation. That’s all I’m saying. So if you have a thought of the form “those people’s behavior is irrational” or “those people are behaving that way because of their culture,” just notice that this is the kind of view that the human mind tends to exaggerate, so give that thought some extra scrutiny before you get too attached to it. In our conscious management of our ideas, attribution error implies that we should try to consciously err on the side of assuming that other people’s behavior is rational.
Someone with poor hearing in one ear will often learn to turn their head slightly to compensate when listening to someone. Attribution error implies that our brains have a similar limitation, a bit of deafness to the possible rationality of the actions of others, one for which we need to compensate.