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A Fundamental Error: Beware the Gospel of Self-Improvement

A focus on internal causes misrepresents the nature of behavior.

Try this True/False Quiz:

  1. In general, people who join the armed forces are more courageous and patriotic than people who don’t.
  2. Willpower is the key ingredient in one’s ability to persevere and achieve difficult goals.
  3. Resilience is a quality of character. Some have it and some don’t.
  4. The biggest factors in gaining success and wealth are hard work, talent, and personal perseverance.

If you answered ‘true’ to most or all the above, then you have fallen victim to a common and consequential cognitive error known as the fundamental attribution error (FAE), which refers to the human tendency to favor internal over situational explanations of behavior.

Granted, both internal individual qualities and external contextual variables inevitably interact to produce behavior patterns. Yet more often than not—overwhelmingly so—the environment accounts for a bigger piece of the explanatory pie.

SVG from Lumu / Wikimedia Commons
Source: SVG from Lumu / Wikimedia Commons

Let’s check our quiz.

  1. We call soldiers courageous and patriotic, yet as I have written before, there is no evidence that individual differences in personal courage and patriotism predict patterns of enlisting in the armed forces. In fact, economic, educational, and family background factors predict the decision much better (see also this April 2020 study).
  2. We tell people to improve their willpower to achieve their goals. Yet as I have written here before, success, as a rule, has less to do with exerting sustained willpower and much more to do with structuring environments, habits, and conditions that reduce one’s need to exert willpower in the first place. If you want to quit drinking, moving away from the bar and picking new non-drinking activities and friends are better strategies than willing yourself to abstain while sitting at the bar with your drinking buddies.
  3. We call people ‘resilient,’ assuming that their success under pressure is mostly due to their internal qualities. Yet as I have written before, research shows that resilience in fact is not a trait but an interactive process that is heavily conditioned on environmental circumstances. Whether you survive the storm will depend on the size of the storm, the quality of your vessel, and the resourcefulness of your crew more than on your own sailing skills.
  4. We commonly attribute people's wealth and success to their hard work, talent, and discipline. Yet wealth and success are predicted much better by external circumstances such as where, when, and to whom you were born. The best way to die rich in America is to be born rich.

To be fair, the tendency toward FAE appears to be hardwired. Notions of personal agency and responsibility help us form a sense of identity and facilitate social commerce; our traits and decisions certainly affect our health and functioning. All things (environmental) being equal, our individual characteristics will decide the game. But all (environmental) things are seldom equal, and ignoring their differential effects is a mistake. In a smoke-free environment, your smoking decision will decide your cancer risk. In a smoke-saturated environment, your decision to smoke or not will matter little.

Indeed, the science of psychology itself is partly responsible for perpetuating the FAE. This is because psychology takes the individual to be its core interest, expertise, and unit of analysis. In its focus on the person, our psychology also reflects the individualistic nature of the culture. Moreover, personal traits and characteristics are easier to grasp, visualize, and track than vast societal forces and circumstances. Thus we tend to believe that individual agency, character, and smarts are the levers of destiny.

Consequently, we focus much attention on instructing people to shore up their skills, fix their character flaws, overcome obstacles and weaknesses—in short, behave better to get a better life. This approach is based in error, the FAE, because it neglects to consider the crucial role of context. To wit: If you’re perpetually starving, the decision to steal some food reflects less on your character and more on your situation. Eliminating poverty will reduce food theft much more effectively than training hungry individuals in moral virtue. And the systemic starvation is a much graver moral transgression than individual theft.

The appeal to internal, individual qualities is also used by those in power to maintain their power by negating the demand for systemic change. If the system convinces you that your problems are your fault, then they cannot be the system’s fault. Blaming the victims through the focus on 'personal responsibility' also helps promote the ‘just world’ assumption, the false notion that the world is as it is for a good reason and that those who have it bad must have done something to deserve it.

Humans are inherently susceptible to this belief because of our need for order over chaos. The ability to detect order and reason—cause and effect, signal in the noise—confers an evolutionary advantage, and our brain is all in on the task. So much so, that when it can’t find good order and reason, it makes them up. (This adaptation is the biological mechanisms underpinning human religion: There must be order. If we can’t detect any order, we are compelled to envision an unseen, Godly, order).

The ‘just world’ belief, associated with negative attitudes toward the poor, validates those at the top. Perpetuating it is thus in their interest. Pushing the primacy of internal individual explanations—the FAE—is a ready means to that end.

Note, for example, how somehow it’s always the powerless who bring their misfortune on themselves; always them who 'should have known better'—the black kid who got shot should not have run from police; the woman who was assaulted should not have dressed that way; the poor laborer who became addicted should have known better than to heed his physician’s offer of opioids, etc.

The powerful, on the other hand, are somehow routinely absolved of this type of 'personal responsibility' burden; their shortcomings, mistakes, and failures are somehow never really theirs, but rather the fault of some nefarious outside agents or unforeseeable, uncontrollable circumstance; bad polling, bad press, fake news, invisible enemies, the deep state, or the Chinese.

Unfortunately, psychologists and laypersons alike often go along perpetuating the FAE, and often with the best intentions. We celebrate those who beat the long odds, yet routinely forget to inquire why the odds are so damn long in the first place.

Indeed, those who beat the odds are to be congratulated. But the biggest lesson we should take from them is not about the beating; it is about the odds. Not doing so creates a situation in which highlighting the good exception reinforces the bad rule. Celebrating the resilience, smarts, and personal moxie of one poor kid who gets accepted into Harvard in fact serves to both veil and buttress a system that keeps so many kids out of Harvard by maintaining their poverty, and keeps Harvard patently out of reach for most poor kids.

Granted, character matters too. Certain individual traits and skills, such as intelligence, self-control, or psychological flexibility, will serve you well across multiple contexts. Developing them is thus a worthy goal. Yet our appreciation of heroic self-improvement should in the least be accompanied by the acknowledgment that systemic justice and fairness would have rendered such individual heroics unnecessary in the first place. We don’t need more rising-out-of-poverty heroes. We need less poverty.

In sum, the challenge for us—in and out of psychology—is to become aware of, and refuse, the seductive pull of the FAE and work instead to identify and consider properly the role of context in shaping, and changing, behavior.