The Most Important Blog Post You’ll Read This Year … (Updated!)

… 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.

52 Responses to The Most Important Blog Post You’ll Read This Year … (Updated!)

  1. EngineerScotty March 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm #

    Note that this fallacy is used both to explain the motives of supporters, and opponents. We’ve seen how it’s used against opponents on both sides of the transit debate–rail users are alleged to be bus-haters, suburban motorists are accused of being xenophobes, bus riders are accused of being people for whom driving is not an option.
    But we see it too in speaking of supposed allies. It’s a common claim of anti-transit advocates that suburban dwellers don’t ride the bus because they “have a choice” (which also contains an implication that those who do ride, don’t)–rather than because they live in a place where it isn’t convenient.

  2. Cap'n Transit March 15, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    So you’re saying that nobody actually makes any choices, that every action is predetermined? I’m guessing not. Where do you draw the line?

  3. Michael D March 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Cap’n, human behavior is pretty obviously an interplay between the person and the situation. The point here is our poor ability to interpret the influence of the situation aspect on the behaviour of others. Some environments will have a stronger influence than others, and some people will be less swayed by the situation than others. So I don’t think there’s a line to be drawn, just a factor to consider.

  4. Jarrett March 15, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    Cap’n. I’m saying that the choices people make are more rational than they seem to someone not in their situation. The point is that it’s easy to treat someone else’s rational judgment as cultural if you don’t understand their situation.
    Situation here includes origin, destination, time of day, ability to pay, degree of urgency, need for flexibility, special needs such as children or wheelchairs, and available information. We contend that most people are making good choices given their situation, but we can’t see another person’s situation perfectly, so it’s hard to see how rational they’re being, and easy to assume their decision is more an expression of their personality or culture.
    I’m not claiming that anyone is perfectly rational with perfect information. That view could imply the total determinism suggested in your comment, but we don’t need to go there.
    The point is to critique the widespread assumption that “my” decisions are totally rational while “their” decisions are cultural. “My” decisions are actually less rational than I’ll admit, and “theirs” are a lot more rational than they seem to me as someone who doesn’t understand their situation.

  5. Alon Levy March 15, 2010 at 10:13 pm #

    It’s a good post – thanks for linking.
    Since we’re delving more into culture and irrationality here, I should add here to my comment on Michael’s post that sometimes irrationality is perfectly rational. Sometimes, finding information about alternatives is so cost-prohibitive relative to the benefit that people don’t do it.
    For transit issues, the benefits of taking the most suitable mode are large, so people usually inform themselves (unlike with, say, voting). But sometimes the costs are still too high. For example, if there’s no bus map, or if the bus map is hard to understand, then more people will choose to drive, even if they’d take transit if they had perfect information.
    Another cultural issue is that in some subcultures, if the majority of people in an in-group have one mode choice, it’s rational for the rest to adopt it. I imagine it happens a lot at school.
    For personal examples: I’d ride the bus back home with other students even though my parents were rich enough for me to afford a taxi. In college, I usually took a taxi to campus and the bus back – though part of that was pure situational, as the bus’s longer travel time was less of an issue going back home after class. And living in both Tel Aviv and Singapore, I’d usually avoid taking buses because of the maps’ general awfulness (I don’t think Singapore even has a bus map).

  6. Cap'n Transit March 15, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    Okay, my response is up.

  7. Paul March 16, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    I’d say people who live in the suburbs actually have less of a choice. Where as people who live in the city generally have more of a choice. Transit is better and you can still drive. Although in some cities driving becomes not a great choice and transit becomes a better choice.
    @Alon Levy.
    When they brought the U-Pass program to the Vancouver region for students at UBC and SFU. At first it was slow to take off. But as more started to take transit even more jointed. Because it became the in thing to do. Peer pressure has a wonderful way of shaping people. If all your peers drive chances are you will drive as well. If all your peers take transit chances are you will as well.

  8. Jarrett March 16, 2010 at 5:22 am #

    COMMENTS PRIOR TO THIS ONE refer to an older, briefer version of the post. I adjusted the emphasis and expanded the example of the “car culture” in response to comments received up to this point.

  9. Daniel March 16, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    I certainly agree with the fundamental attribution error in transportation, but could the error not just as much be a lack of understanding of the cultural influence on our own behavior as it is the over-emphasis of cultural attribution on the other? We tend to believe that personal decisions come from within, and overlook the influence that peers or the broader culture in general have on our own decisions. For example, everybody will say that advertisements have no impact on their purchasing decisions, but clearly the advertisers are paying for something.
    This is a really interesting question that I think lots of advocacy organizations grapple with. Do we want to build a local, say, bike culture with events and promotions and marketing, or do we want to advocate for infrastructure changes that simply make it easier and safer to ride in the city? Probably both, but how much time do we devote to each?
    I personally side with you. I think that reason according to individual situations is probably the more important factor.

  10. Tom West March 16, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    One of the things that crops up frequently in transportation modelling is that some people make irrational choices. Given two options, one of which is better by any measure (cost, time, comfort), some people will take the inferior one. (A good transport model allows for this). This is because some reasons for a choice are not simple rational ones – people may simply prefer one choice over another.

  11. Jarrett at March 16, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    Daniel.  Yes, in that sense the error cuts both ways.   When manifesting the attribution error, I underestimate the extent to which other people's decisions are rational, even as I underestimate the extent to which mine are cultural.  That's almost a tautology  After all, culture is invisible to the people inside it, and easiest to talk about from a point of view outside it. 
    But the whole point, then, is that we should be aware of the attribution error and consciously lean the other way, toward a presumption that other people's choices are rational, but may be made in the context of situations that are clear to them but maybe not to us.

  12. EngineerScotty March 16, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    In your addition, you’ve stumbled upon another right-wing term of abuse that I would dearly love to drive (no pun intended) from the lexicon–or recapture.
    “Social engineering”.
    You can’t go into any open forum that discusses transit or urban issues without running into this canard–one which equates planning, no matter how extensive, with Soviet-style governance (and the implied lack of respect for individual rights, not to mention empiricism, associated with totalitarian commumism). Numerous posters in local transit blogs express fear that they will essentially be herded at gunpoint out of the suburbs by some latte-swilling urbanistas, and forced to live in a downtown high-rise tenement–such complaints invariably come from discussions of “simple” projects like building new transit lines. I have yet to encounter threads about how and when the suburbs ought to be bulldozed on any of the blogs I frequent–the only auto-hostile proposals I generally encounter are those to adjust tax/fee structures designed to reduce the number of auto-related costs which are externalized.
    Never mind that modern US suburbs have lots of planning behind them as well….
    The first use of the term, interestingly enough, referred to what is called “industrial engineering”. The modern use of the term–an (alleged) attempt to influence society on a large scale, comes from Edwin L. Earp’s influential 1911 paper, The Social Engineer.
    The term annoys me for several reasons:
    * As a practicing engineer, the abusive use of the term besmirches an otherwise respectable profession. :)
    * More importantly than my feelings, though, is the important point that virtually all governance is social engineering of some sort–including those laws designed to preserve the status quo, not alter it. Indeed, a common construction of the term seems to exclude policies which continue or entrench existing practices–building a transit line through autopia is social engineering, but adding another freeway to yet another suburb is not. Given that many people resist change, it’s not surprising to see how this construction comes about.
    * The term hearkens back to an era of rationalist scientific triumphalism (where it was commonly believed that external organization of complex systems by experts would produce “better” results than allowing self-organization)–this accusation is FTMP a strawman these days because modern planners don’t expect that they can “engineer” a society like one would design and build an engine.
    Certainly, there are more than a few well-known draconian attempts by successful Communist revolutions to remake their society in their image–the New Soviet Man, the Great Leap Forward (in China)–which had catastrophic consequences. But the Interstate Highway System was a massive US social engineering project–one which even made sense given the state of affairs in the 1950s. Of course, it far less makes sense today.

  13. M1EK March 16, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    Good post.
    Cap’n, I think it may be more helpful to view the choices in aggregate – each individual may have some irrational inputs into their decision, but those largely cancel each other out in the aggregate (just like they do in economics – the market itself is, while not completely rational, pretty much more rational than we give it credit for; so is the “transit market”).
    This is quite frustrating given the “train bias” discussed here and elsewhere – some folks think it purely irrational, but it’s unlikely to be that way in the aggregate and in the long-term (people will eventually figure out their train is either better or worse than the bus or car they used before, even if their initial choice is somewhat irrational).

  14. Daniel March 16, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    Jarrett, I follow you, but I guess I want to land on something like an 80-20 split between a rational decision, based on individual situations, and something sub-rational – for me and everyone else alike. I think that puts me more on the side of Cap’n.
    As far as the irrational inputs canceling each other out in the aggregate, many economists are starting to recognize that certain perception biases seem to be built into human nature and are predictable (and can be modeled for). Then there is also the fact that cultural values can effect a particular aggregate in a predicable pattern, even if they are not universal to human nature.

  15. Pantheon March 16, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Non sequitir. It does not follow from the FAE that people’s choices are rational. The FAE relates only to the discrepancy between my evaluation of the role situational factors play in my own behaviour vs. the behaviour of others. It says nothing about the absolute value of situational factors in human decision making. Someone who grew up in Amsterdam and critiques American “car culture” is not guilty of FAE if he acknowledges that he is shaped by his culture just as Americans are by theirs. You ignore culture at your peril. Human beings are wildly irrational and full of prejudices and preconceptions, none more so than me.

  16. M1EK March 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Yes, but the US has enough different cultures rubbing elbows with each other that people will only be irrational for so long, in aggregate (again, in aggregate).
    IE, people will notice that they’re spending an extra hour a day to take the bus – in aggregate – even if a few don’t (or don’t treat that time loss as rationally as we would predict). Likewise, people will notice the train beating their car to work – in aggregate – even if a few holdouts insist it can’t possibly be so.

  17. Pantheon March 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Another thing: I’m not certain that attributing people’s decisions to culture is even a case of FAE. FAE is a tendency to attribute the behaviour of someone to their personality rather than situational factors. But cultural upbringing is a situational factor of sorts. I have a problem with the definition you give for FAE in your first paragraph, because the extent to which culture may be intrinsic or extrinsic to the individual is more complicated than you are making it out to be.
    Also, you are talking about FAE as if it is a logical fallacy, when it is nothing of the kind. It is a psychological term. It tells us absolutely nothing about the truth or falsehood of a given claim. Maybe people really do behave the way they do because of who they are. Even paranoids have enemies, and even raving lunatic FAE’ers might be right.

  18. Jarrett March 16, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Pantheon. No, by “situation” the definition means the range of factors about the current trip and moment that the actor is aware of. It definitely doesn’t include one’s own unconscious motivations and conditioning, as it makes no sense to talk about acting rationally based on those.

  19. Pantheon March 16, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    But you are just making up your own definition of situational factors that is separate and apart from the definition as it is used in the clinical terminology. Example:
    “Joey grew up to be a murderer because he was a born psychopath”. Personality-based explanation.
    “Joey grew up to be a murderer because he came home one day to find his ex-wife in bed with another man, so he killed them both”. Situational-based explanation.
    “Joey grew up to be a murderer because he was raised in a tough urban environment, which had a culture that promoted violence and did not teach Joey the difference between right and wrong”. ALSO A SITUATIONAL-BASED EXPLANATION, or at best a complex explanation that doesn’t fit easily into either category.
    There is a very strong argument for the idea that culture and conditioning are situational-based explanations within the context of the FAE. You can use your own definition of “situation” if you want, but if you are using the term as part of an argument that someone is guilty of FAE, you don’t get to make up your own definition.

  20. CroMagnon March 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    The above discussion signify why sociology is not a science. :)

  21. Art Busman March 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    I think the kind of people we become, our culture and identity, is shaped by our environment, and if that environment contains a government that favors and subsidizes cars, car companies that bombard us with car ads, and zoning laws that makes it near impossible to walk anywhere nearby, then over time, we become car-people. We become the type of person who prefers cars despite recent new trends in transit options. It’s easy to say, hey, we can change people’s habits immediately by changing their environment, but when environment shapes culture, and culture shapes us, we have to alter both environment and culture. Not only do we have to provide better transit, but we have to sell it and ingrain it in our culture just as aggressively as cars have done in the past, and that’s reversing thousands of hours of car commercials and billions of dollars of advertising and car marketing. I migrated from Europe to America at a young age, and in trying to become Americanized I fully embraced the car culture and worshipped cars and bought car magazine and made car models and I became a car person and I still am. It may take a generation or two and an huge investment in transit and transit advertising and marketing to change Americans into transit-people. It is my ability to see the world through the eyes of others that lead me to believe that other Americans are car-addicts like me, and existing data reinforces this perception. There’s a new concept in Economics in psychology in many social sciences, that contrary to popular belief, we are NOT rational decision makers. Perfect markets and perfect players don’t exist. There’s a reason advertisers spend billions to change our behavior. Not only do we need information and options, but we need to be sold, we need to see our favorite celebrity endorse the product, for cool looking people to use the product. In Europe, taking transit is not only convenient, it’s cool and hip. To ignore this human, irrational factor is to undermine investment in shaping culture as well as environment. I think you may have committed a fundamental attribution error yourself by assuming everyone is as thoughtful and analytical as you are in making their daily transportation choices.

  22. EngineerScotty March 16, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Sociology tries to be a science, and parts of it are. (And the most scientific parts are often called “economics”). :)
    There are many sociological phenomenon which have been well-studied, well documented, and are subject to repeated observation. Given that the subject of the field is whole populations–it’s troublesome when sociological results are applied to individuals–a trend observed in a population, even if statistically significant, is seldom sufficient to draw any conclusion about non-random subsets of said population. (Likewise, it’s a common error to extrapolate tendencies into absolutes).
    Unfortunately, the field has a well-established history of crappy research, political axe-grinding masquarading as scholarship, and such. This doesn’t make the entire discipline worthless, but you gotta be careful.

  23. Jarrett March 16, 2010 at 9:06 pm #


  24. Multimodal Man March 16, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    The situation that I experience often as of late in dealing with the public is a resistance to change that is based on the perceived preferences of others who they assume must make choices for different reasons than they do. We’re looking at options for consolidating routes and stops to increase frequency and efficiency of service. More than once I have heard from a car-owning white male, in his 50s or 60s, contriving stories how the routing change will be awful for single mothers toting children or other low-income groups, because they will have to walk an extra block or learn a new schedule; never mind that they have twice as many travel options in a day or the route makes better connections or has a longer span.
    I’m trying to understand FAE; is my story above an example? It seems to me that non transit riders assume that people who ride the bus do so because they appreciate slow, infrequent service, so attempts at improving overall travel time (frequency is a travel time benefit) are not appropriate, even though if they rode transit it would be important. Do other people face having people speak up for populations they know nothing about?

  25. Cap'n Transit March 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Just before I read your revised version, I posted a new response. I think I captured your argument fairly well, based on your earlier comment.
    I agree that we should give people we disagree with some benefit of the doubt and at least investigate the possibility that they’re behaving rationally. But we should also be open to the possibility that they’re behaving irrationally. We should also be aware that today’s rational decisions may be the consequence of yesterday’s irrational decisions.

  26. ws March 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Humans are a species of convenience, and no matter a person’s personal preference, they will ultimately succumb to the mode of transportation this is most convenient for their particular need. Given an array of options and a multitude of destinations, people will choose the best option that suits their given destination.
    This would be a great lesson for both sides of the transportation spectrum. Too often people are placed in an either/or scenario that does not reflect reality.
    I think there’s some issues in explaining this psychology phenomenon because it’s too damn verbose in every link that I’ve read about it. It needs to be dumbed down for people like me, but I think Jarrett’s discussion does an adequate job.

  27. Jarrett March 16, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    @Multimodal Man. The middle-aged man speaking for mothers with children that he sees on the street isn’t quite making an attribution error. As you describe it, he seems to be assuming correctly that the woman is using her best option given her situation.
    But he may have a poor understanding of her situation, which is ultimately aided only by encouraging people to (a) speak up for themselves and (b) pass on what people have actually said about their situations. If the man had actually listened to this mother talk about her needs and the limitations of the bus service, and passed on her views, he would be more credible.

  28. Jarrett March 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    @Cap’n. Thanks. I have no disagreement with your latest comment.

  29. EngineerScotty March 16, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    One more important point–when someone DOES express their needs, pay attention. Far too many on both sides of the debate dismiss the expressed needs of others as irrelevant for various reasons–ranging from attacks on transit-using car owners for not being sufficiently motivated to be car-free, to claims that the transit needs of the poor are irrelevant, and they should get a job and a car “like everyone else”. And everything in between.
    Not all stated needs can be accomodated, of course–if someone in a smaller town has to work the graveyard shift, the transit system may not be able to afford providing late-night service. But they should be listened to, rather than dismissed as whining.

  30. Jonathan March 17, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    After thinking this over for two days, I can offer up this following personal example:
    I live four miles away from the job site, in an area well-served by transit (Manhattan!). I bike to work. My colleagues have on occasion referred to me as a “bike person,” and see me (in commuting mode) as a type, who intrinsically likes to ride. I see myself as a rational actor with good reason to cycle (exercise, savings, speed, flexibility). FAE!
    From my perspective, this difference makes it difficult to proselytize for biking, because the activity gets perceived as a personal choice; it’s like trying to encourage people to take up recreational cross-country skiing.
    The more I think about it, the more I think that my colleagues’ hypothesis may fit the facts more closely, and that I’m the one making the fundamental attribution error.

  31. Michael D March 17, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Jonathan, that sounds like a pretty similar scenario — you’re obviously one of those “avid cyclists”! (Oh, how I hate that term.)
    You may or may not have reasons that make cycling specifically appealing to you, but some of the aspects of your cycling motivation are surely of general applicability, and these get devalued by assuming you’re just an “avid cyclist”.

  32. Chris March 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Really interesting post Jarrett. As a psychologist and a sociologist (two pseudo-sciences for the price of one) I’m always thrilled when people take our evidence and try to apply it in the real world. I do think your interpretation maybe the wrong way round though.
    If I presume I am making a rational choice, but see everyone else as being subject to irrational cultural influences, why can’t it be my evaluation of my own decision making process that is at fault, rather than my assessment of that of others? We do have developmentally and culturally determined preferences which influence our decisions and have an effect on our behaviour independently of rational choices. I’ve never learned to drive, not because I’ve always had a better transit option, but because I don’t like cars or the effects of a car centred society. It’s a completely irrational choice (as it has costs to me and very few benefits to me or society) but every time I think about learning I decide not to. So if I acknowledge that I’m irrational then surely it’s an attribtion error to assume that everyone else is different?
    From a transit point of view I think a system should be designed from the point of view of rationality, as otherwise it wouldn’t work. However I do think it’s important to realise that culture can does influence people’s decisions, and that you will need to engage with it/change the frame in certain situations.

  33. Jarrett March 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    Chris. I think we’re agreeing. As I understand the FAE, it’s a phenomenon in human minds generally. Everyone (well, everyone I’ve ever met) likes to be right and likes to think of their daily decisions as more or less rational. As you note, our decisions are less rational than they seem, but this is exactly what the FAE observes: We tend to overestimate the rationality of our own decisions, and underestimate the rationality of other people’s.
    If you’ve done a lot of psychotherapy or meditation or other kinds of disciplined introspection, you may be able to become conscious of the sources of your own irrationality, including cultural context, to the point where you can actually describe key decisions of your own as irrational — as you do. But not many people can do that in any disciplined way, except perhaps for a narrow set of obviously nonrational processes like sexual attraction and favorite colors.
    FAE is about how we form opinions about the behavior of other people who think they’re being rational, but whose behavior seems irrational to us. FAE’s message is that we are better off assuming that they’re right, that they are being rational, because we can never see the complete situation to which they may be (rationally) responding.

  34. Julie Anne Genter March 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I am not sure you are being completely irrational in your preference to not use a car. Your intuitive dislike of cars and their effects on cities seems to be rationally (if not explicitly or consciously) taking into account the significant wider disbenefits of cars.
    The difference between you and most people who choose to drive is that they are rationally maximising their internal benefit, and not considering external costs. I would say you are acting rationally, but with more information than most people.
    Jarrett, great and terribly interesting post. I completely agree.

  35. Nathanael March 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    Implications of the FAE:
    * You are less rational than you think and may well be choosing based on culture or taste;
    * Other people are more rational than you think and may well be choosing something they did not prefer instinctively.
    I know I like trains. But I also know that where they’re a practical option, a lot of people who aren’t fans would be using them instead of cars. That’s my contribution to correcting for the error…. (Incidentally, I drive most places because I have *no other option*, not even a bus route).

  36. Chris March 18, 2010 at 7:11 am #

    Julie – I don’t think I’m being rational in not driving, not just because there’s no benefit to me, but because there’s not even an altruistic benefit to society. It makes no difference whether I drive or not as the roads will still be busy and the air will still be polluted. The only thing I get is the satisfaction of knowing that I think I’m doing the right thing. But it’s impossible to treat this kind of moral incentive as a part of a rational decision making process without completely undermining the meaning of rationality (because if someone with different values makes a completely different decision then it’s clearly more complex than a simple weighting of costs vs. benefits).
    Jarett – yes we probably are agreeing more than I supposed. My point really was to stress the importance of not presuming that it only works one way, which from your initial post I thought is what you meant. My other concern is the implication that because people are more rational than we give them credit for we should treat them as if they are completely rational all the time. Psychologists have found that people behave more/less rationally in different situations. For instance those that are studying economics will give more rational answers to problems of fairness than those who haven’t studied the discipline. In this case their culture effectively determined whether they made rational decisions or not.
    I dont know enough about transit systems or transport planning to say what the implication of that fact is, but there’s sure to be some. So in Jonathan’s example of cycling, you might want to invest to improve facillities for cyclists across the city by investing where few people currently cycle, but you might actually find that “keen cyclists” cluster together in certain types of neighbourhood and that investing in these areas and other areas that resemble them is more beneficial than treating everyone as equally likely to be a potential cyclist. Values are fairly easy to survey, and within a relative monoculture like a single city fairly reliable measures of preference.

  37. spyone March 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    This is sort of a recursive problem.
    That is, sometimes the problem really is the “car culture” (just to pick one example).
    That is to say, part of the reason why people in a given community all drive wherever they are going may be that the community was designed to make that the best option.
    People who prefer to walk to shopping and the movies will choose to live near shopping and theaters, but only if that option is available. If there is nowhere to live near shopping, they will live far from shopping.
    Not all of us have a lot of choice where we live: we need to live someplace we can afford, relatively close to where we work. Not all of us have a lot of choice about where we work, either: while there are Walmarts everywhere, they generally hire people who already live near that Walmart rather than, say, someone who wants to move to that area from out of state.
    I suppose what I’m saying is that many of us live in a situation that is the result of choices that other people have made: our preferred kind of housing is not available in the community we need to live in, or not at a price we can afford.
    I have mentioned before that here in Virginia Beach, the buses run from 7am to 7pm (with the exception of one route). Even though the place I work is on a bus route, we do not have a 9-5 shift: we are open 24 hours, and our shifts start early in the morning, or early in the afternoon. At best, any particular worker there could take the bus one-way, as there is no bus at the other end of their shift.
    All of us who work there might be the kind of people who would take the bus to work, but there is no job for us where the bus actually gets us there. So we drive, or walk, or take bicycles, not because we choose to but because choices made by others force us to.
    I could move to a more transit-friendly city, but I don’t know of any convenience stores that are headhunting for clerks.

  38. Nathanael March 23, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I had to pick my house based on wheelchair-accessibility. There is approximately one ADA-accessible apartment building in the *entire county*, and it was fully rented. And would actually have cost more than buying a house, over 10 years.
    There were approximately two true single-level houses available, both out in the unwalkable no-transit wasteland.
    Buying one of the houses was the only practical option. I actually got one in a fairly dense node of development filled with multifamily rental buildings, but there’s *still* no mass transit within walking distance. Even if there were sidewalks, which there aren’t. And as I mentioned, no park-and-rides either!

  39. EngineerScotty March 27, 2010 at 3:51 pm #


  40. Robert July 25, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    There will always be similarities and differences between people of different cultural areas ( even cities that are not far apart ). The most important thing to be aware of is if the solution to a transit problem has been shown (statistically) to improve conditions in that area.

  41. Kay @ Las Vegas for Kids July 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    What kind of error would I be making if I said that I didn’t want my kids to ride the bus for these reasons:
    1. It’s 110 degrees outside and waiting half hour for the bus is a rather unpleasant prospect
    2. Who knows who is going to approach them while they are walking to and from the bus stop
    I would agree… my decisions are certainly based on my situation.

  42. Layne Stoops, Spokane Counselor July 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    While I can understand your statements of racial evolution rooted in a survival mechanism in our ancestors past, I find it difficult to assimilate that rational into a modern perspective of the history of racism and discrimination. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I gathered you’re claiming that we as individuals identify ourselves with others that appear similar to us, rather than with others that appear dissimilar. This is true from my experience. However, I do not feel that racism is contained within the parameters of appearance. Acts of racism and discrimination have resulted over religion, creed, politics, gender, wealth/poverty, and many other facets of the human experience. So maybe we need another word other than racism to describe the actions taken against another people group, or maybe racism is more than social Darwinism, and more than an inherited mechanism we need to ‘weed’ out.

  43. Robert the Bike Computer Guy August 6, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    I can’t help but feel these issues and proposed solutions hinge upon separation vs. integration perspectives. Separation in creating mode-specific routes and integration in providing services and planning. I’ve heard of cities in Europe completely integrating streets for all types of transportation, doing away with sidewalks, lanes and traffic signals all together. This forces all traffic to travel at the same speed. I’m not suggesting our culture could handle that, but I think we could get a lot further with solutions that work for all pedestrians, cyclists and motorists if we approached the issues with an “integration” mindset. Obviously, this would require improved decision-making and awareness from all sides of the spectrum, starting from the bottom-up (at the individual level) as opposed to the top-down (govt, laws, etc.).

  44. Pedals Cycling August 8, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    @Kay @ Las Vegas for Kids : I completely agree with your opinion and in today’s world you can’t imagine the number of bad crimes against kids. For such a matter I would without any doubt choose biking if i can’t take them to their destination by car. It’s much more safe for them. At least they have a method to escape in case there’s a problem.

  45. Engine Management August 10, 2010 at 4:38 am #

    Not only are decisions based on each persons individual situation. Importantly, each persons decision is based on their own ‘perception’ of their individual situation.
    The perception of any situation is each persons reality, which in many cases is not actually true reality. That is not to say that people lack intelligence, causing them to make stupid decisions. Rather, every person, even those with the highest intelligence, have their own biased view of every single thing that happens to them in their life.
    Unless we are that person, we cannot begin to properly understand their decision making process.

  46. Kevin - Seattle Area Homes Expert August 12, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    You can change the culture but you can’t change human nature.

  47. kb September 17, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    What about using the services of a school psychologist to try and identify issues at a young age, and avoid later problems?

  48. John Bailo October 12, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    If you really want to understand, you might go to the point of “people want to have independently guided, private, on demand, transport vehicles that choose the optimal route per trip”.
    It just so happens that cars (and taxis), bicycles and feet are the three main ways of achieving that goal.

  49. Sam October 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    I don’t see why you can’t change human nature by changing the situation which eventually would change the culture. If new choices and options are present then new situations will incur and therefore overall social conditioning would change.

  50. Shan - Removals Canberra October 21, 2010 at 3:47 am #

    The media, tv advertising, plays a major part controlling our social conditioning. As unreal as it can be, perception is reality for the masses…with corporate marketing cartels manipulating culture for profit.

  51. Dr Sophie Henshaw November 13, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    The Fundamental Attribution Error can explain a lot of human actions. However, the majority of planning decisions regarding human transit are made based on what is best for the majority of the population, and to a lesser extent, what is best for the environment. Of course it is better for the environment if people cycle to work, however for many it is simply not practicle. However, in saying that, more can be done to better the facilities available such as bike paths for more environmentally-friendly transit.

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