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.