This week, my graduate students will be discussing the effects of cognitive biases on foreign policy decision making. Previously, I wrote about misperception. Today, I want to address a related cognitive bias – the Fundamental Attribution Error – which has a similarly negative effect on policy making.
The Fundamental Attribution Error describes our tendency to attribute our own practical and moral failures to external factors while attributing other people’s failures to their personal character. Conversely, we attribute our successes and good deeds to our own character, and others’ successes to some external factor. If we succeed, it is because we are skillful, and if we do good, it is because we are good people. If we do something wrong, it is because something outside our control, and which we could not have predicted, intervened to prevent our otherwise sensible and good plan from succeeding. By contrast, if others succeed, it is because they are lucky, and if they fail, it is because they are incompetent or evil.
For instance, once it became clear that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq had gone disastrously wrong, its supporters did not acknowledge their aggressive instincts, bad judgment, or any other internal characteristic, but rather blamed external factors for their mistake: ‘Saddam lied about weapons of mass destruction, and so it was perfectly reasonable for us to be mistaken about them’; ‘Nobody could have known that those in charge of the operation would have been so incompetent’; ‘Iraq turned out to be in a much worse state than we could possibly have predicted’; and so on.
By contrast, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, we attributed its actions to the evil character of Saddam Hussein. We dismissed as irrelevant external factors which might help to explain Saddam’s actions, such as misinterpreting American signals about what was permissible, or genuine grievances about Kuwait’s behaviour.
The Fundamental Attribution Error accentuates the misperceptions I wrote about in my earlier post. It also prevents people from reconsidering faulty policies. When a new Ukrainian government took over in February 2014, it believed that it would bring an era of prosperity to Ukraine. Instead, its seizure of power brought war. But the Fundamental Attribution Error meant that its members could not attribute the tragedy which struck their nation to their own errors. Rather, they had to attribute it to something external – Russia. Everything which went wrong was Russia’s (and particularly Putin’s) fault. That mode of thinking precluded any analysis of their own mistakes, and encouraged them to press on with the very policies which had produced war.
Unfortunately, liberal democracies which claim to pursue ‘values-based’ foreign policies may be especially liable to the Fundamental Attribution Error due to their high sense of their own righteousness. When their policies fail, and particularly when they fail in a manner which is costly in terms of human life, such democracies are confronted with severe cognitive dissonance because of the contrast between the negative consequences of their actions and their view of themselves as ‘good’. The Fundamental Attribution Error provides a way of eliminating this dissonance. During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised a ‘humble foreign policy’. He never delivered on that promise, but the idea remains a very sound one.