Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error is that we overestimate the power of the person and underestimate the power of the situation.

Student Culture and Learning: What’s the Connection?

Lee Ross defined FAE as a tendency for people, when attributing the causes of behavior, “to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behaviour”. That insight is very aligned with neurodiversity and the social model of disability. It’s at the heart of equity literacystructural ideology vs. deficit ideologydesigning for the edges, and changing our framing.

The notion that each of us isn’t entirely the master of his own fate can be awfully hard to accept. It’s quite common to attribute to an individual’s personality or character what is actually a function of the social environment—so common, in fact, that psychologists have dubbed this the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a bias that may be particularly prevalent in our society, where individualism is both a descriptive reality and a cherished ideal. We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that the have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on.81 If only all those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control!

Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 170). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is painfully pervasive when the conversation turns to academic failure. Driving Duckworth and Seligman’s study of student performance was their belief that underachievement isn’t explained by structural factors—social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted, it should be attributed to the students themselves, and specifically to their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

When students are tripped up by challenges, they may respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out. Often, however, they do so not because of a defect in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because of structural factors.

Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 170). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

US culture and education are vast engines of FAE. Special Education is a gauntlet of FAE attitudes. Our community gets tired of wading through bad framing.

Compulsory, top-down mindfulness (and mindset marketing more generally) is too often used to situate structural problems within individuals while “disguising the ways they kill us.” It contributes to the gauntlet.

Mindfulness matters, but make no mistake: Corporations are co-opting the idea to disguise the ways they kill us.

Yet, individualized mindfulness programs pay virtually no attention to how stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives. Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer argue in “The Wellness Syndrome” that the mindfulness movement exemplifies an ideological shift, which turns an obsessive focus on wellness and happiness into a moral imperative. This “biomorality” urges the individual to find responsibility via the “right” life choices-whether through exercise, food, or meditation-to optimize the self.

Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less | Salon.com

This is harm reduction theater. Practicing pluralism, means triage and harm reduction. Harm reduction theater wastes resources and bikesheds deficit ideology instead of embracing equity and structural ideology.

Consider the current buzz about self-regulation:  teaching students to exercise self-discipline and self-control, to defer gratification and acquire “grit.”  To discipline children is to compel them to do what we want.  But because we can’t always be there to hand out rewards or punishments as their behavior merits, some dream of figuring out a way to equip each child with a “built-in supervisor” (as two social scientists once put it) so he or she will follow the rules and keep working even when we’re not around.  The most expedient arrangement for us, the people with the power, is to get children to discipline themselves — in other words, to be self-disciplined.

Proponents of this idea like to point out that cognitive ability isn’t the only factor that determines how children will fare in school and in life.  That recognition got a boost with science writer Dan Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence in 1996, which discussed the importance of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved.  But a funny thing has happened to the message since then.  When you hear about the limits of IQ these days, it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but a recycled version of the Protestant work ethic.  The goal is to make sure kids will resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do — and keep at it for as long as it takes.

Social psychologists sometimes use the term “fundamental attribution error” to describe a tendency to pay so much attention to character, personality, and individual responsibility that we overlook how profoundly the social environment affects what we do and who we are.  This error has political implications:  The more we focus on people’s persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. Consider Paul Tough’s declaration that “there is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths…[such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.”  Whose interests are served by the astonishing position that  “no antipoverty tool” — presumably including Medicaid and public housing — is more valuable than an effort to train poor kids to persist at whatever they’ve been told to do?

The most impressive educational activists are those who struggle to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas. They’re committed to a collaborative approach to schooling that learners will find more engaging.  By contrast, those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask:  How can we get kids to put up with it?

Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad (##) – Alfie Kohn

Recognize and prioritize minority stress.

As we come to understand depression in the transgender community more accurately, it’s become clear that the major cause is what’s referred to as “minority stress;” that is, “stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.”

Source: When Worlds Collide – Mental Illness Within the Trans Community – Lionheart

Why are there greater mental health stresses on autistic people from gender-minority groups? To quote from the research paper,

“The increased rates of mental health problems in these minority populations are often a consequence of the stigma and marginalisation attached to living outside mainstream sociocultural norms (Meyer 2003). This stigma can lead to what Meyer (2003) refers to as ‘minority stress’. This stress could come from external adverse events, which among other forms of victimization could include verbal abuse, acts of violence, sexual assault by a known or unknown person, reduced opportunities for employment and medical care, and harassment from persons in positions of authority (Sandfort et al. 2007).”

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Transgender and Avoiding Tragedy

We’re awash in behaviorism and mindset marketing that directs thinking away from systems and toward individuals, individuals who are structurally stressed. 

Design is tested at the edges, and you need structural ideology to do something about it.

Corporate and ed-tech mindfulness aren’t structural or equity literate. When you aren’t equity literate, you risk engaging in harm reduction theater. When you aren’t equity literate, you fail at triage and harm reduction.

Investment in universal mindfulness training in the schools is unlikely to yield measurable, socially significant results, but will serve to divert resources from schoolchildren more urgently in need of effective intervention and support.

Mindfulness Nation is another example of delivery of low intensity services to mostly low risk persons to the detriment of those in greatest and most urgent need.

Those many fewer students in need more timely, intensive, and tailored services are left underserved. Their presence is ignored or, worse, invoked to justify the delivery of services to the larger group, with the needy students not benefiting.

Source: Unintended effects of mindfulness for children | Mind the Brain

FAE exhausts marginalized students, patients, and employees. Education workers, healthcare workers, coworkers, everyone: We need you to check your FAE. We need you to confront injustice. Are you practicing harm reduction theater? Are you contributing to the gauntlet while telling us it’s good for us?

The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health.

ClassDojo app takes mindfulness to scale in public education | code acts in education
I try my best to hide that I care
That you got me wrong, yeah, you got me wrong
Yeah, you got me wrong
You really got me wrong, yeah, you got me wrong
Yeah, you got me wrong
I look around, the light hurts my eyes
And I'm falling deeper and deeper into the void
Yeah, I'm falling deeper and deeper into the void

--Cubicle by Slothrust

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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