The Blame Game: Attribution Errors

I’ve been enjoying some of the really interesting expositions of cognitive errors which @pnrj has been writing, and along with a discussion of a common cognitive error in business provided in my textbook for a project management class I took in the fall, I’ve been inspired to write about how we often make mistakes when it comes to assigning blame or diagnosing a problem.

One of the common errors that folks make in business has at its root a desire to blame something other than our own behavior for a failure to succeed in achieving a particular business objective.  I’ve seen it a lot, mostly in the form of blaming either the ill will of one of their employees or one of their managers for something on which that employee or their manager didn’t have any direct influence and where that individual had by far the most influence on the outcome.  I routinely saw employees blame their managers (almost none of whom were given the effective training needed to do their jobs) for their personal failures to even try to make sales to people who had the money and seemed interested.  I routinely saw managers blame a lack of good sales numbers on their employees (who were hired without the requisite skill set or ability to do the job to the level required of them because the company had decided to save money by paying low wages and low wages were understandably not attracting highly qualified applicants).  Those managers were routinely blamed for the bad sales numbers by the executives who made the decision to pay low wages and provide their managers with employees who were unlikely to reach good sales numbers and had also made the decision to not pay for the managers to be adequately trained.  In each case, the blame was cast upon some agent known to the party doing the blame-casting, and I have this tendency myself, of course.  I’m much better about it than I was ten years ago because I generally seek to uncover my own faults, but it’s still there.

The textbook describes this tendency as an attribution error in which we ascribe fault to a person or group of persons with proximity to us rather than correctly identifying underlying systemic problems.  And we have a strong tendency to blame people or groups we already don’t like when we exercise this tendency.  Thus some folks like the Westboro Baptist Church blame the increasing acceptance of persons who have homosexual inclinations for wars and natural disasters and so on.  This of course is an obvious and extreme example of the error, and it’s often not so easy to sort out in every day life.  After all, it is quite possible to reach a correct conclusion using unreliable means.  Just ask anyone who deals with math students.  I’ve seen them occasionally get the right answer despite not using the reliable method of getting it. 

So for example a person could believe that their spouse cheated on them with their best friend because that friend had made a concerted effort to win the affections of their spouse and that it had nothing to do with any of their own bad behavior driving the spouse away.  And they might be correct about their friend’s intentions even though their belief was rooted in a desire to cast blame on someone else and avoid the possibility of their own culpability.  So while we certainly should not assume that every instance of blame-casting correctly identifies where the fault lies (since in most cases it will at least be partially incorrect), neither should we assume that it never does so.

Another common attribution error that I’ve seen a great deal of in the modern era is a tendency which is also rooted in our desire to avoid dealing with our own culpability and cast it onto something else.  But in this error we incorrectly assign blame to a system where we should correctly attribute it to a person or group of persons. I routinely saw this issue in the workplace as well.  An employee would blame their mistakes on old software that they weren’t comfortable with using but worked very well.  A manager would blame their company’s policy for their lack of compassion and tact in dealing with their employees.  An executive would blame the economy for driving wages down even though the company’s profits were at an all-time high mostly because they had reduced wages and laid off workers.

We don’t just do this in the workplace, of course.  This error also carries over strongly into our views about society and politics and religion.  Thus some folks blame socialism or atheism for the atrocities in the Soviet Union or blame communism for the brutality of the government in China.  Some folks blame Christian groups opposed to contraception for the spread of AIDS in Africa or blame Islam for the World Trade Center attacks.  Some folks blame capitalism for creating a culture of greed, or social welfare for creating a culture of dependency.  Of course, the system we choose to blame usually has a lot to do with whichever system we already have disagreements with or for which we already have antipathy, just as with the previous error.  This being an error does not imply that ideas and ideologies do not influence outcomes, because they certainly do.

In most cases there are both situational factors (such as ideas and ideologies and cultural imperatives and economic systems and political systems) and personal factors (such as moral failures and careless accidents and malicious acts and impulsive hatred) that contribute to human evil.  The reality we live in and the realities which we choose to actualize are generally very complex and integrated with other parts of reality.  In part, our attribution errors come from our tendency to oversimplify those realities and assign a single cause to that which has many facets and factors.

These errors aren’t just mistakes that we make here and there which have little impact.  These errors destroy relationships, lead us to incorrectly diagnose problems, keep us from becoming better people, and frequently lead us to behave like utter douche bags in political and religious discussions on the internet as we blame all the ideas we already don’t like for our social and economic problems with little grounds for doing so.

Not that any of us on Xanga would ever do such a thing.  Or if we do, it’s probably just the anonymity of the internet or a reaction to everyone else around us being meanie poo-poo heads and has nothing to with our personal failings. winky

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18 Responses to The Blame Game: Attribution Errors

  1. galadrial says:

    I read this with interest…but…I am not sure “Management” has the same place it once did.Companies and corporations try to apply  “formulas”, with the intention of “maximizing efficiency”. I’ll give you an example. A young man I know who has ADHD discovered that physical labor was a great way to not only get employment, but turn his “minus” into a plus. He got a job with Fed Ex as a package handler several years ago, and is a regular energizer bunny on the line. He was eager to demonstrate his willingness to work, so he literally worked his tail off from his first day. Three months in, he was told he was moving 110 parcels an hour. Most of the people he worked with did 80-90. He was thrilled…till they explained that he was expected to UP his total…even though he was already out performing the people he worked with, who had been employed longer. So…he worked harder, upped his total by ten percent…and three months LATER was told he had to do better again. Every three months he was expected to  “improve”. If he failed to do so, he would be warned…and after three warnings? Fired. He transfered after a year…and at my suggestion, did not give 100 percent when he started at the new location. He gave 80 percent (which was still better than most of his co-workers.) After three months, he increased it a little. They LOVE him…and it will be at least another year before he faces “warnings”. I think you see my point. They aren’t increasing efficiency…they’re moving the cheese. No one in management told them the number of packages you moved were a “guideline”, they told them  it was the LAW. By applying it the way they have, they assure themselves of constant employee turnover…and higher levels of burnout. Verizon has their own version….their reps MUST suggestive sell in EVERY call, without fail. A friend of mine worked for them for over a decade—and made excellent money at it. But if you fail to suggestive sell even once…instant termination. One day, she had a head cold. She slipped. At the end of her shift, she was told to clear her locker. NO warnings—out. I took their training at one point…and that is exactly what I was told. Customer service has nothing to do with helping the customer…it’s all about “You want a fries with that?” Once management had a place…it was knowing people’s abilities, and making sure your aces were in their places…but that was back when people weren’t terrified of losing their jobs. Fear might be a great motivator in the Coliseum…but it makes people sort of twitchy in the work place. Since we started downsizing, and outsourcing, it seems like management doesn’t serve the same purpose it once did. Loyalty to your company meant something—when your job was a lifetime commitment. I understand the “Blame Game”…I just know the rules were changed a long time ago…and I am wondering what it’s about now…

  2. PPhilip says:

    I am into biology and a viewpoint similar to symbiosis is in order ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbiosis )Generally in nature there is almost a lack of blame game but a constant search for methods and functions that help make certain entities survive. Basically people are hired to make money for the company. Too much blame game politics could make the work environment too toxic. Not enough incentives could make a company to lose money.The employees who need a manager to survive is a type of symbiosis. Boss material would be able to achieve sucess without a manager. Sometimes you want to make the manager position closer to the employee so that they inspire each other.@galadrial – your example shows that some rules have gone haywire and that the optimum conditions of the workplace was not recognized. Some bloggers try real hard to express opinions and comments back could be great feedback. I suppose some of the sucessful bloggers give good feedback (Except theodamn) and or rely upon a formula of good writing and fan base (the root of Theo Dan’s popularity). Unfortunately relating a blog to a work place situation has its limitations. I suppose those who have long “dry” spells sort of lose their audience here at xanga and good bloggers have to be constantly rediscovered.

  3. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @galadrial – What it’s about now seems to be just what you’ve described.  Efficiency is the buzzword that actually means disregarding efficiency in search of ever higher profit margins.  Many companies have gotten rid of much of their management that actually served a useful purpose and replaced it with a bunch of folks who have a pretty meaningless job as conveyors of increasingly bad news to both those on the ground floor and those at the top.  Turnover is still high for most working class jobs and benefits are disappearing in some cases and shrinking in others.  If you’ll forgive the expression, the shit definitely rolls downhill.  People at the bottom have it pretty bad.  People managing the people at the bottom get payed slightly more and have to take a lot more of the shit for it.  The pay and benefits aren’t even remotely worth the work until you get at least to the fourth rung of the corporate ladder, and they’re barely worth it then.  Of course, the odds of getting to that rung are really low.  The company doesn’t want to pay you more for doing more work.  They prefer to pile on more work and act as though they’re doing you a favor by letting you learn the skills to do a job that they’re unwilling to pay you for.  And if you agree to it on the condition that they do pay you more, they can’t understand why you’re not grateful for just having a job and accepting of whatever table scraps they want to throw you.I sympathize with your friend’s situation.  I was in a very similar situation at my old company.  I significantly outperformed everyone else who had ever had the job and still got denied a pay increase and a good benefits package because they set the bar so high and hobbled us so much that there was no way any of us could reach that bar.  I got the closest, but as you might expect there was no cigar.  At my current job, I work hard, but not nearly as hard, just like your friend.  The cost/benefit ratio just isn’t good enough for me to bother putting in the effort like I was before.

  4. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @PPhilip – I like the notion of symbiosis.  I’ve used plenty of biology and physics in my poetry, and symbiosis happens to be one of the biology concepts I really enjoy using.Symbiosis would be far better than the blame game, to be sure.  It would be much more conducive to mutuality and sustainability, two things that we are desperately in need of as a society at the moment.

  5. galadrial says:

    Hmmm…once the concept was “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”Yet even in the post Madoff world, the ideal seems to be “Building Nothing, Employ Few, and Grow Rich”…which I think is unsustainable long term. No…wait…the whole “service economy” notion got people thinking that would work. I remember asking in the mid 80’s what would happen not if, but when times got tough, and people cut BACK on services. I wish you could have seen the looks of terror and disgust. HOW could I be so negative? So Un- American? I was neither…I was simply observing the reality of cycles. But that was before the “unreality” of our current situation.What worries me is  how long it has run along. Since the market crash of 2008, too many people seem to be hoping we can “go back” to the same nonsense that scuttled the ship in the first place. Companies STOPPED doing business, and were all playing Monopoly on Wall Street with the sub prime mortgages. (I prefer the expression Junk Bonds myself…even if it is isn’t as precise.) Everyone sunk everything they had into it…and suddenly…BOOM. There was no one cause…more like dominoes. But before we got there, there were other games...Corporate Raider…where you gutted companies that weren’t in bad shape, and sold off the assets, sometimes just to get to the pensions. Outsourcer. where you took Government credits in any form you could, while blaming American workers for being greedy, or lazy—then shipped the jobs to countries where people made 60 cents an hour—a wage we can’t even begin to compete with. But most will tell you that the very BEST game was being Bernie Madoff himself. He ran his scheme for DECADES. It was based on air…nothing…and he was worshiped for it. I still remember seeing his name on magazine covers—or reading about him in the print media. The sad part is that it was classic. “If something seems too good, that’s because it IS”.I also remember when I first heard the notion that people were stupid and worthless…but Companies were smart and valuable. Only…companies are RUN by people.I wonder if we will ever re-trace our roots…and get back to MAKING stuff…instead of complaining that “Nothing is made in the US anymore”…

  6. @galadrial – Do you realize that the U.S. is still the #1 manufacturing country in the world?  China is a distant 2nd.  Your comments apply to a TINY percent of business.  What is being outsourced is service jobs.  The U.S. applies the highest compliance costs on manufacturers of any country in the world.  You’re just talking more populist trash.

  7. galadrial says:

    @soccerdadforlife – And you are a mindless troll, who likes to spew pap.

  8. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @galadrial – I too worry that we as a nation have become less interested in building up and making things for the benefit of all and more interested in simply consuming and hoarding to no real purpose.  And I’ve also heard the bit about an aggregate entity like a corporation being much greater than a person.  It reminded me of the fascist perspective that values the nation and denigrates the value of a person except insofar as they contribute to whatever the ego-maniacal political leaders see as the betterment of the nation.  I was no more impressed with that line of thought than you were.

  9. If you’re going to recommend the comments of mindless people, I’m going to unsubscribe.  Life is too short…

  10. Not sure that I believe the statistics from China.  I hear that companies are bringing a lot of manufacturing back because of quality issues.  Lower wages are offset by increased liability.

  11. China’s quality problems discussed here.

  12. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @soccerdadforlife – I happen to appreciate the value that both of you bring to a discussion, but if it’s just going to create conflict for y’all to interact, then it might be best for me to just subscribe to you.  You’re welcome to unsubscribe if you think it best.  I won’t cause a stir over it.  As you said, life is too short…

  13. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @soccerdadforlife – Interesting article.  I’ve heard that both some manufacturing and some service jobs are being brought back to the U.S. over quality issues.  Which is probably a good call.  The low wages and looser regulations are attractive at first, but hidden costs (like the liability issues you mentioned or travel costs or bad PR) can crop up very quickly.

  14. @Nous_Apeiron – (galadriel is an intelligence-deprived hole who is very ignorant about business.)  Do businessmen all of a sudden decide, “Oh!  I need to start a service business.  I don’t like manufacturing?”  Is this a moral thing????  A sudden lack of interest in manufacturing among the ranks of American businessmen due to laziness???  Duh!  Why do businesses move offshore?  Maybe they shouldn’t.  Maybe they should just put up with a lack of sales because their competition who use cheaper labor and have low compliance costs can bring products to market cheaper and/or have higher margins.  Maybe American businessmen are immoral because they won’t lose money honorably, employing workers at high wages making products the business can’t sell, and won’t screw their shareholders.  Galadriel’s thinking is really, really shallow.  It’s your typical populist thinking.  “Big business wants to hurt the little guy and keep him unemployed or working in low-wage jobs.”  In reality, manufacturers can’t find qualified workers a lot of times.  Nowadays, manufacturing is increasingly high tech and needs high-tech workers.  Our educational institutions aren’t offering the sort of training required.  Sociology and psychology and business majors don’t cut it.An intelligent approach is to look at the big picture of compliance costs ($2 trillion/year according to some estimates) and figure an acceptable total cost for compliance, then decide how to allocate compliance while staying within the compliance budget.  Of course, this is vulnerable to political corruption just like the current system.With some offshoring there are also delays due to time differences and problems holding trans-continental (NA-Europe or even more NA-Asia) meetings.  Travel costs are negligible for large companies.

  15. LauraDeLuna says:

    um… “meanie poo poo heads”

  16. I think if people could more widely be made aware that they often commit false attribution errors, systems could maybe be made more efficient.  But maybe not.  Ego is at play here as well.

  17. Pingback: The Blame Game: Battle of the Sexes | Isorropia

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