Context and Our View of Self and Others

Sometimes, and probably more often than we like to admit, a heavy emphasis is put on personality characteristics (internal factors) to explain someone’s behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about situational factors (external) contributing to the results. This phenomenon is often referred to as the fundamental attribution error. The flip side of the fundamental attribution error is the actor-observer bias, in which people tend to over-emphasize the significance of a situation in their behaviors and under-emphasize the role of their personality characteristics. My guess is that the latter bias, is quite useful as a defense to our self esteem – but also a hard nut to crack when it comes to self-improvement. In combination, these two thinking patterns are and explosive mix which. In the following I’ve made some personal notes on how to avoid these traps and try to assess situations and results more objectively.

What can I do avoid making the fundamental attribution error?

Being human, I believe it is virtually impossible to avoid making attributions from time to time. It is probably a combination of brain efficiency – .

To avoid making the fundamental attribution error, one of the best things you can do is “put yourself in the other
person’s shoes,” as the old saying goes. By thinking about what you might do in the same situation, you might come up with some situational factors for a behavior which could shed more light on the subject.

In addition, asking the question: Why would a intelligent, rational and decent human being do this?

I think awareness of a common cognitive bias can help you look for hidden behavioral factors, making you a better observer and better able to read people and situations. Finally, when you are trying to explain your own behavior, avoid indulging the actor-observer effect, and make sure to give your personality some credit for your actions.

“Some things have to be believed to be seen.”
– Ralph Hodgson

After all, it is about respect and decency, isn’t it?



Overconfidence – Krueger Dunning effect

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) wrote in “An Essay on Criticism” in 1709, the following:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Yes, we’ve all had the pleasure of meeting him: he lacks nothing when it comes to self confidence, but he does lack realistic assessment of his own competence – at least in your areas of high competence and you’re able to tell.

I recently came across a seemingly odd and quite academic article by Kruger and Dunning . The article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulies in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetences Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” explained this phenomenon to me in ways I haven’t previously realized. The study was set up to test a few hypotheses :

  • Incompetent individuals tended to overestimate their own level of skill
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge

They set out to test these hypotheses on human subjects consisting of undergraduates who were registered in various pshychology courses. In a series of studies, Kruger and Dunning examined self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were again asked to estimate their own rank, whereupon the competent group accurately estimated their rank, while incompetent group still overestimated their own rank.

Across four studies, the authors found that participant scoring in the bottom quartile on the tests GROSSLY overestimated their test performance and ability. Although the test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Conversely, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence.

So what?

All in all, I didn’t find the results particularly mind blowing – but it did make a lot of sense. However, when I started to ponder upon what I had just read, a few things dawned on me:

First of all, if this is true, it means the people who need it the most, don’t realize themselves they need help. Trying to persuade people like this is a hurdle that is hard to cross. Not to mention those who have been forced to get help – they resist you more than anyone. This could be a topic by itself (and probably will be). I’m a management consultant by trade, and thus I’m trying to make a living of helping people. I’ve seen a lot of this up close, so it is not shocking news, but I think this article provided a good explanation.

Second, self assessment is a dangerous game – as if we didn’t already know. I’ve found that people either think “people are harder on themselves than you would ever be – let them assess themselves” or “they need to be told the hard truth”. In either case, I believe it is “lost cause”. I have a hunch this is based on how they themselves do such assessments.

Third, when I am in the unskilled category, and when I am, do I realize my own inadequacies? Scary…

However, we need to remember that although these findings are significant and statistically true, there are individual variations. In my experience some people consistently either overestimate or underestimate their own abilities. I’m wife falls in the latter group, and some would also argue I’m part of the first group…

What is the solution?

According to this study, the only solution is more competence. Maybe not a surprising conclusion from academia… 🙂

More knowledge is always a solution – at least I find more knowledge exciting…