Fundamental Attribution Error

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.


3 thoughts on “Fundamental Attribution Error”

  1. Reblogged this on Toxic Trinity and commented:
    For many more decades than we have hitherto realized, the incessantly globalizing policies of both London and Washington DC (aided & abetted by New York City) have been characterized by a distinct lack of wisdom and humility.

    One could also rightly accuse these two iconic capitals of pumping a steady stream of malice and infantilism into the entire world’s body politic for all of the 20th century. And since the start of the 21st, virulently toxic neuroses have been added to that mix (e.g., the fanatical obsession with terrorism and “security”).

    Somehow, we have to convince those who have the strength to change their outlook, to see the monsters these two political and financial locales have become. Note that Washington DC is one large Freemasonic display. Note also that Freemasonry is simply “Judaism for the Goy”. Judge them not by what they say, but what they have done, and continue to attempt. Understand the symbols they venerate.

    So … what are the political, cultural, and/or psychological processes that make the Anglo-American West act so aggressively, so intolerantly, and so arrogantly? Generation after generation.

    For example, have these two societies — so intimately linked in numerous ways — been infected by the same parasitical meme, theory, or immigrant group? Is that what the problem ultimately is? The destructive will or inclination of a parasite?

    This reblogged post does an excellent job of exposing “cogntive biases” that lie deep within those Anglo-American institutions that produce generation after generation of oddball characters. Exactly those who dependably preach the psychopathic, short-sighted policies we have been obliged to endure for at least four generations. Please take you time to digest its message. You will not be disappointed.


  2. Another very interesting and informative post – makes me wish I was in the course and, actually, I wonder if you’ve raised this sort of question: are there good historical or contemporary examples of foreign policy conduct that is relatively (i.e., more or less) free of these types of errors and biases? Presumably, all states (or groupings or blocks of nations) are prone to these errors to some extent or another; no one is fully rational, self-critical, etc. – hence the exceptional messiness of international relations, its “Hobbesian” character, etc. But are there actors on the international stage who have, at one time or another, done better than others?

    The interesting thing about Western states is that they see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, which, if true, together with certain advantages and luxuries that they possess (e.g., access to political science or IR-policy expertise, democratic and other institutions acting as constraints, etc.), should mean that they are in a far better position to recognize and correct for these sorts of errors. In other words, they can afford a level of self-criticism of exactly the kind that would be required to overcome “fundamental attribution” or other such errors. And yet, at least lately, error-making appears to be multiplying exponentially. Why on earth is that?

    An answer is at least partly offered in your last paragraph: pursuing “values based” policy can actually be blinding, as a matter of practice/pragmatism; placing a high premium on ethics, as a matter of self-perception (as a matter of setting up one’s identity), can actually corrupt the pursuit of an ethically correct course of action in the real world. So, presumably the answer is that: in order to actually do good, it’s necessary to recognize that one is not necessarily or automatically “good”, i.e., to be free of a kind of moral arrogance and to opt instead for a kind of pragmatic humility. (The odd thing is, we easily recognize a kind of moral arrogance in actors motivated, for example, by religious fanaticism; but can’t seem to recognize the equivalent in ourselves.)


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