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Fundamental Attribution Error

March 26, 2011

This morning’s general session at the ASCD conference featured a talk by Chip Heath, a Stanford professor and author (with his brother, Dan), of the books Switch, and Made to Stick.

The point of his talk was to look at the conditions that make change more or less likely, for individuals, groups, and organizations.  In thinking about change, Heath used the analogy of a rider on an elephant.  The rider is the analytical mind – important, but considerably smaller than the elephant.  The elephant is the emotional side of our behavior – more powerful than the rider, but more effective when they work together.  Effective change comes from getting the rider and the elephant working together, and the last key to change is clearing the path, removing the obstacles and changing the environment to help the rider and elephant along.

In terms of shaping the environment, Heath advised the audience to beware of “fundamental attribution error.”  Rather than try to summarize it perfectly, I looked it up.

From AllPsych Online:

1. Fundamental Attribution Error. This refers to the tendency to over estimate the internal and underestimate the external factors when explaining the behaviors of others.  This may be a result of our tendency to pay more attention to the situation rather than to the individual (Heider, 1958) and is especially true when we know little about the other person.  For example, the last time you were driving and got cut off did you say to yourself “What an idiot” (or something similar), or did you say “She must be having a rough day.”  Chances are that this behavior was assigned mostly internal attributes and you didn’t give a second thought to what external factors are playing a role in her driving behavior.

So, for me, considering my own context, this idea is applicable in a number of ways.  Are my students struggling or succeeding because of who they are and what they’re willing to do, or am I missing something about the context, the structure of their lives, the support that shapes their days and lives?  Are the parents I speak to expressing concerns that are strictly a reflection of their personality, or are there contextual factors shaping their behavior – environmental or organizational matters that I could address?  Are my colleagues or administrators approaching a difficult issue in a certain way because of their character, or because they have been shaped and influenced by their surroundings?

An awareness of fundamental attribution error will hopefully serve me well in efforts to lead change, and even in daily decisions and interactions with my students, their parents, and my colleagues.

But on the broader, policy level. is there a lesson here?  I believe there is.  First, I’ll try to apply the lesson and not attribute bad policy to bad people.  Instead, I’ll look at decisions made by Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee and attribute their mistakes and their resistance to good ideas to the pressures of their context rather than defects in their character.  I’m not backing off on the sense that they are making serious mistakes.  But the solution might be that they need an expanded context.  They need a change of environment.  What I think they need is an environmental view that includes more teachers, more students, and more opportunity to see how their approaches undermine their stated goals.

They might also benefit from thinking about fundamental attribution error in the discussion of teacher quality.  Do we have a huge problem with bad teachers in this country?  Is it fundamentally a matter of the teachers’ desire or motivation or inherent skills and qualities?  Or – much more likely – do we put teachers into environments where the odds of success are limited by a lack of resources like time, training, and administrative support?

When we shift the focus from the bad teachers to the overall teaching, and begin thinking about the forces that shape every teacher, we’ll be taking one step in the right direction.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Larry Ferlazzo permalink
    March 29, 2011 4:28 am


    Do you think that when school reformers place the lion’s share of responsibility for student achievement on teachers, and minimize the role of poverty, then that’s another example of Fundamental Attribution Error?


  2. Lynne Formigli permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:19 pm

    OK, I’ll go along with the premise that Duncan et. al. are not bad people, they just are implementing bad policy because their external experiences are warping their perspective and ability to make good decisions. So then where does their refusal to listen to the voices of teachers fit into this model? Is it an internal attribute to deliberately exclude certain external factors?

  3. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 29, 2011 5:30 pm

    Larry – I suppose it depends on how you frame it. To some extent, I do think there’s attribution error, but there’s also a matter of their political need to focus on solutions that don’t cost as much. Providing more teachers and more essential services will be costly. Firing older teachers and replacing them with younger teachers will save money. So they can look like they care about teaching quality without needing to come up with any funding.

    Lynne – hmmm, I don’t know… I guess to be safe in terms of attribution errors it would be wiser to say that they’re in circumstances that make it difficult for them to confront divergent views!


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