The Not-So Fundamental Attribution Error
By Bryan Caplan
Remember the so-called “fundamental attribution error”? According to some psychologists and the economists who love them, we have a strong tendency to overestimate the importance of individual differences and underestimate the importance of circumstances. I’ve questioned its fundamentality and erroneousness before. Now it looks like personality psychologists agree with me:
In the decades since Mischel’s (1968) critique, researchers have also directly addressed the claim that situations have a stronger influence on behavior than they do on personality traits. Social psychological research on the effects of situations typically involves experimental manipulation of the situation, and the results are analyzed to establish whether the situational manipulation has yielded a statistically significant difference in the outcome. When the effects of situations are converted into the same metric as that used in personality research (typically the correlation coefficient, which conveys both the direction and the size of an effect), the effects of personality traits are generally as strong as the effects of situations (Funder & Ozer, 1983; Sarason, Smith, & Diener, 1975). Overall, it is the moderate position that is correct: Both the person and the situation are necessary for explaining human behavior, given that both have comparable relations with important outcomes. (emphasis mine)
Researchers in what we call “Psychology and Economics” often act as if anyone who disagrees with their take on psychology just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. When I fact check their stories, though, I often discover that the “psychologically-informed” economists are only familiar with the sub-field of cognitive psychology. I usually only have to dig a little deeper to discover reasonable voices in other branches of psychology who have a contrary perspective. I’m all for inter-disciplinary work, but it’s important to remember that disciplines are split into many tribes. When one tribe claims, “We all think this way,” you probably shouldn’t just take their word for it.