Concept of the Day: Fundamental Attribution Error

I’ve written a few times about our many biases, this is another one along the same lines. This one is slightly more complicated to understand, but once you do I hope it will challenge how you interact with people and how you respond to situations.

Imagine you are sat in an update meeting and you are going through the list of actions from the previous meeting with the assembled team. You get to an action that John is supposed to have progressed and you ask him how he has got. John looks at you surprised, “Was that my action?” He says. You continue to go down the list until you come to another action that John is supposed to have completed. This time John looks a bit embarrassed and says that he hasn’t had chance to look at it whilst writing something into his notebook. The very next action is another one for John, again, no progress, this time he looks down and taps something into his smartphone.

How do you feel about John? Why do you think he hasn’t made progress on his actions?

Your response to John probably demonstrates fundamental attribution error.

Let me explain.

Attribution is what we do when we project a perspective or characteristic onto someone. Put simply, there are two classes of attribution.

Dispositional Attribution is the class of attributes that make up someones character, the internal characteristics; they are lazy, they are disorganised, they have no focus, they are arrogant.

Situation Attribution is the class of attributes that relate to the situation, the external characteristics; they are in too busy, they are having a bad day, they aren’t well.

Then there’s the Fundamental Error part, this is where our biases come in.

It turns out that when attributing a perspective or characteristic onto someone else we tend towards Dispositional Attribution. In our scenario we are most likely to characterise John as lazy or disorganised. We then have a tendency to use that attribution for future interactions with people – “There’s no point in giving actions to John because he’s too disorganised.”

Here’s the really interesting part though. When we assess our own performance in a situation we tend towards Situational Attribution. Now imagine you are John; what’s your reason for not doing you actions? It won’t be because you are lazy, it won’t be because you are disorganised. Your reasoning for your own behaviour will be because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or because you are too busy, or even because you are just having a bad day.

The way that we judge others is radically different, even opposed, to how we judge ourselves.

The chances are that neither Dispositional or Situational factors will be wholly responsible most of the time.

So next time you are in a situation and find yourself assessing people’s motives, attributing, it might help to ask yourself which side of the spectrum you are on. Perhaps there are situational factors that you hadn’t thought of?

Here’s a video that’s probably clearer than my ramblings:

Office Speak: Skate to where the puck is going to be

Imagine that you are sitting in your team meeting and you are in mid flow pontificating about your favourite subject, but you have a problem, you know that at the end of this sentence you have nothing left to say. There’s a real danger that you are going to fall off the cliff and into a dark void of silence. You need something to say and you need it soon. Fortunately you have a stock of cliches ready for this very occasion. Which one will you use? Which of the many are you going to leap to? Are any of them appropriate to this meeting? You flash through the memory cards in your head and settle on an old favourite:

“We need to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

And with that you conclude.

The team nod in agreement as your timely words, everyone apart from the young graduate who has just joined the team. She looks at you blankly:

“I’m sorry, but what does that mean.”

You open your mouth to explain and then realise that you don’t have a sensible explanation. You’ve used this term so many times before, but you’ve never really thought about what it really means, you can’t even remember where you first heard it. You’ve heard it used so many times that it’s become embedded in your psyche.

The reality is, this cliche is a quote:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

Wayne Gretzky

As you may have already guessed, it’s an ice hockey reference. Wayne Gretsky was apparently quite good at it, not that I would know, I’m trusting Wikipedia.

The basic idea of the quote is that if you are going to intercept a puck your only hope is to go to where it is going to be by the time you get there. There’s no point in trying to intercept it by going to where it has already been.

The term is regularly used in the technology arena to describe the plans of organisations and their latest innovations. Steve Jobs used the term to describe the approach at Apple:

“There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been. And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple.”

Quotes from Steve Jobs tend to hit management-speak over-use in no time at all. Every manager dreams of being Steve Jobs after all.

How often the term is relevant in day-to-day business is debatable. There are times when it is very appropriate, but all too often it’s just being used as a filler and not got any authentic meaning.

The blog was brought to you by the word “puck” and the letter “w”.

Concept of the Day: Campbell’s Law

Campbell’s law is defined by the following quote from Donald T. Campbell:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In other words: the higher the stakes associated with a measure, the more likely it is that the measure is corrupt and in so doing that the system being measured becomes corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a school exam the more likely it is that people teach to get a high pass mark and in so doing teaching become corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a business measure the more likely it is that people manage to the measure, or even falsify the measure, and in so doing corrupt the business.

There are numerous places where you can see this being worked out historically; the more important question, though, is where is this happening today?

What effect does it have if you stop people’s benefits if they don’t fill out a defined number of job applications?

What effect does it have if you pay a traffic warden on the basis of the number of fines they manage to issue?

What effect does it have if you fine rail operators for late trains?

What effect does it have if you pay doctors on the basis of the number of appointments they complete?

I’m sure there are many, many more.

This little video does a really nice job of explaining Campbell’s Law:

Office Speak: Sunsetting

The other day I received an email along the lines of:

On the first of the month after next we will be sunsetting the whatamI4 system.

I knew what it meant, but it struck me as a strange phrase to use.

I suppose I ought to explain what it meant for those of you who don’t understand the meaning. I’ll replace the word sunsetting with something else to see if that helps:

On the first of the month after next we will be turning off the whatamI4 system

That’s right sunsetting = turning off.

Sunsetting with 10 characters = turning off with 10 characters.

Sunsetting with 3 syllables = turning off with 3 syllables.

I suppose that’s my question, why not just say that it’s being turned off.

Returning to the original sentence, why not say:

On the first of the month after next whatamI4 will be turned off.

There you go, that’s shorter and simpler than either of the previous ones.

Or even:

whatamI4 will be turned off on the first of the month after next

I prefer this because it gives a much better call to action.

I’m not objecting to sunsetting it just feels like redundant complexity.

Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair though. There is a picture being drawn here and there is a difference between turning off and sunsetting. The term sunsetting is trying to communicate that the light is drawing in on a the application and that it’s time to move over to something else. Turning something off happens quite quickly, even instantaneously; sunsetting may happen over an extended period.

It’s not a word I hear people use in normal life though – it’s office speak.

Axiom: 4-to-1 – Compliment-to-Criticism Ratio

Is there a correct compliment to criticism ratio?

I’ve carried around the ratio of 4-to-1 for a long while now, but never really investigated it’s origins, or whether it has any basis in fact.

It’s an axiom and hence feels about right, but is it too simplistic? Why 4-to-1? So off I went to do a bit of research.

It turns out that the axiom has an interesting history. I’m going to keep it short, Wikipedia has a longer chronology.

Our brief history begins in 2005 when Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson publish a paper in American Psychologist called “Positive effect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing” in which they outlined that the ratio of positive to negative affect was exactly 2.9013.

So not 4-to-1, ah well.

Barbara Fredrickson went on to write a book in 2009 titled: Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. In the book she wrote:

“Just as zero degrees Celsius is a special number in thermodynamics, the 3-to-1 positivity ratio may well be a magic number in human psychology.”

The idea of a positivity ratio became popular and entered mainstream thinking, taking on names like the Losada ratio, the Losada line and the Critical Positivity Ratio. I’m not sure when I picked up the idea of a positivity ratio, but I suspect it would be around the 2009, 2010 time-frame.

Then in 2013 Nick Brown, a graduate student, became suspicious of the maths in the study. Working with Alan Sokai and Harris Friedman, Nick Brown reanalysed the data in the original study and found “numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors”. This the claimed ratio completely invalid leading to a formal retraction of the mathematical elements of the study including the critical positivity ratio of 2.9013-to-1.

So not only did I get the wrong ratio, it turns out that the ratio is mathematically invalid anyway.

This is where axioms get interesting, scientifically the idea of a 3-to-1 ratio of positivity is rubbish, but there’s something about it that keeps the idea living on. Instinctively we feel that it takes a bucket load more positivity to counteract a small amount of negativity. We know that we hear a criticism much louder than a compliment.

We only have to think about it a little while, though, to realise that a ratio is a massive over simplification of far more sophisticated interactions. As we interact with people, one criticism can be nothing like another one. Imagine the difference between a criticism from a friend and one from a stranger, they are very different. The same is also true for compliments. Thinking on a different dimension, we know that a whole mountain of compliments about triviality is not going to outweigh a character impacting criticism.

Perhaps, worst of all, though, is no feedback at all?