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Newsletter, September 2007

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The Fundamental Attribution Error

I wrote last year about Dialogue by Design's past involvement in mediation and conflict resolution, and a number of people were intrigued to learn more. This sort of work is strictly out of the public eye and it is impossible to describe specific cases in any detail, but occasionally a general principle leaps out.

So this first newsletter of the autumn leads off with an aspect of conflict work that sounds arcane but is actually very basic and applies well beyond the confines of the obscure hotel room in which I managed to remember it.

Say hello to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). If you google this you will find lots of fascinating articles, so I am just going to introduce the aspect of it that struck me so forcefully last month in the acrimonious dispute between a government agency and a private concern. The ostensible cause of the problem was someone being 'difficult', and muggins the mediator was brought in to 'make them see sense' and allow 'rational debate'.

This sort of language should always ring alarm bells, because one person's sense is usually just that - one-sided, and 'rational' is code for, as old blue eyes had it, 'doing it my way'. And 'difficult': this is where the Fundamental Attribution Error kicks in.

The FAE says, basically, that human beings are inclined to explain people's behaviour in terms of their personalities rather than looking at external factors, such as their situation, which might account for it. In the case of this mediation, one person was being blamed for a problem that was, at least partly, the result of the situation in which he was trapped. When he was allowed, through the mediation, to explain his frustrations in a way that meant they would be heard, he abandoned his habitual table thumping and rational debate did indeed become possible.

The FAE is a particular trap for people in a third party role. Outside observers of any situation are always tempted to attribute behaviour to character because, coming from a culture that emphasises individuality and autonomy, it seems natural to do so. If we ourselves are in that same situation, however, we would be more inclined to look for situational factors to explain our behaviour.

The antidote to the FAE is very simple: it is standing in the shoes of the people you are observing and looking at the situation as they perceive it. The perceptions and interpretations of it may still be wildly different, but they will at least be about the situation rather than, covertly, about what people think of each other.

Andrew Acland


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