You always thought he was a good guy. You’ve chatted with Jack, your senior manager, at company parties, attended numerous meetings with him, and talked privately in his office in recent weeks to discuss a new initiative you’ve been spear-heading. Today he made the announcement: the company is pulling the plug on your project. Naturally, you’re disappointed. But how do you feel about Jack?
If you’re like many people, you’re thinking, “Now I see his true colors. All of his encouragement must have been insincere. When push comes to shove, Jack is just like the rest of the higher-ups: phony, risk-averse, and visionless.”
Or is he? This scenario illustrates one of our deep-seated, and largely invisible, biases. We tend to attribute others’ behavior to fixed personality traits (i.e. “phony”, “risk-averse”), rather than considering behavior within the constraints of a situation. For example, basketball players who are made to shoot in a poorly lit gymnasium may be judged as less talented than those who are observed playing under excellent lighting. We quickly blame the player, rather than taking stock of temporary limitations. Even when we’re aware of the outside pressures people face, we often continue to see behavior as a reflection of enduring qualities. We just can’t help ourselves.
This phenomenon, called the “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias”, was observed 45 years ago in a psychological experiment by Ned Jones and Victor Harris, and has intrigued social psychologists ever since. In the words of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “…in everyday life people seem all too willing to take each other at face value and all too reluctant to search for alternative explanations for each other’s behavior.” Gilbert proposes that the correspondence bias can be traced to four root causes. The following are ways we can — and probably do — go wrong in our understanding of Jack:
- We lack full awareness of Jack’s situation. We usually have incomplete information about the constraints other people face. For instance, we may learn that Jack has been an advocate for the project all along, but it has recently come under intense scrutiny from the vice president. Jack is nixing the project under duress, with regret.
- We have unrealistic expectations of Jack. Even if we understand that he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, we might continue to formulate strong opinions about Jack’s character. This is because we are not always good at predicting how the average person — or how we, ourselves — would behave in a given situation. As a result, we hold unrealistic expectations. “Sure, he’s under pressure,” you think, “but I never would have caved. What a coward.”
- We make exaggerated assessments of Jack’s behavior. We may have perfect knowledge of situational constraints, as well as realistic expectations, yet we may not perceive Jack’s behavior accurately. Imagine you know, and understand why, he will announce the project’s demise. However, when he does, he sounds more comfortable and confident than you thought he would. In fact, it sounds like this is what he wanted all along! A more detached observer might see ambiguity where you see confidence, but because of your background knowledge, you are reading into every nuance of Jack’s behavior. The result is an exaggerated assessment.
- We fail to correct initial assumptions about Jack. Evidence shows that we are engineered to make quick judgments about people and situations, then correct errors as more data becomes available. However, when we have a lot on our plates, the mind becomes overloaded, and we fail to revise mistakes. In the midst of tackling your workload or responding to the latest email inundation, Jack remains categorized in your mind as, well, one of those guys.
None of this means that we should try to negate, or even suspend, our judgments. It is probably impossible to do so, and besides, our snap judgments can carry useful information. Sometimes they are right on the mark. Still, the correspondence bias is so insidious that it can steer us toward bad ideas, as well as mindless stereotyping. Psychologists have shown this bias plays a role in prejudice and gender preconceptions(people tend to think that a woman with a sad facial expression is “emotional”, while a man with a similar expression is just “having a bad day”). On a collective level, the fundamental attribution error can stymie a company’s development. A 2011 HBR article by Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano chronicles how this bias contributes to failures in not only individual, but organizational, learning.
The most effective thing may be to simply consider that you really don’t know Jack. When we leave room for this possibility, we open the door to continued investigation, discovery, and an evolving understanding of the people and situations we encounter in our work lives.