Greg Mankiw’s learning psych from Steven Pinker, and I’m green with envy. If I could trade places with Mankiw, I’m sure I’d learn a lot – but at the same time, I could get a lot of objections off my chest. Here’s one that’s been bugging me: Pinker’s lecture on the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a fancy name for humans’ alleged tendency to attribute too much variation in human behavior to individual differences, and too little to circumstances.

It’s easy to demonstrate this tendency is some experiments. In the classic experiment, people were randomly selected to deliver either a pro-Castro or an anti-Castro speech. Even if members of the audience knew that people did not choose their position, they still tended to think that people believed what they were saying.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But to my mind, all this experiment shows is that if circumstance explains 100% of all variation in behavior, people give circumstance less credit that it deserves. My question: What would happen if you inverted the experiment, so that circumstance explained 0% of the variation? Would people still give circumstance some credit? I strongly suspect they would.

For example, suppose you re-ran the experiment, and let people choose their positions freely. Then ask the audience: Does the speaker genuinely hold this position, or is he faking to earn an extra reward? I bet that even if people were told that everyone got the same payoff, some people would falsely attribute some of the variation to incentives.

More generally, I doubt that the famous experiment has much “external validity.” Is it true that in typical real world problems, we attribute too much to individual differences and too little to circumstances? There are lots of consumption decisions where every choice has the same price – like which basic cable t.v. station to watch, or what food to eat at a buffet. People still vary radically in their choices.

Even more strikingly, people seem repeatedly surprised by the fact that other people don’t make the same choices that they do. “Opera? How can you stand that stuff? Let’s watch something fun, like football.” (“Grr… Opera is fun to me!”) Doesn’t this show that people underestimate the importance of individual differences?

Compared to these experiences, the experimental evidence for the Fundamental Attribution Error seems pretty weak. To me, anyway. After all, doesn’t my position predicts that you might have a very different reaction?