When we try to understand why others do what they do, we engage in a kind of thought activity called attribution. Briefly, attribution is the process of identifying a cause — or more rarely, causes — for the behavior of another. For example, when several people laugh together, we would typically attribute that behavior to a cause such as their having heard something funny, as might have occurred if someone else had told them a joke. Other causes are possible, of course. For example, they might be engaged in a conspiracy to make another person feel excluded. Read more about attribution.
Attribution is a thought process that is both frequently used and essential for social interaction. Mistakes are common, too. People who work together solving difficult problems are especially vulnerable to making one particular kind of attribution error that I like to call the Stupidity Attribution Error. It's actually a special case of the Fundamental Attribution Error. (See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more)
Here's how it works. In an extended debate about potential solutions to a difficult problem, one of the participants — I'll call her Jordan — proposes an elegant candidate solution. It happens that understanding why Jordan's proposed solution is worthy of detailed consideration requires some background that many of the other participants lack. After struggling for almost an hour to understand Jordan's proposal, the group decides to set it aside and consider alternatives that are less controversial. By that point in the discussion, Jordan is frustrated and angry. She thinks to herself, "These people are idiots. They rejected my idea because they're too stupid to understand it." Her conclusion is incorrect because she doesn't realize that many of the other participants lack the background needed to understand her idea.
In knowledge work, To commit the Stupidity Attribution
Error is to choose incorrectly to
attribute to stupidity the decision
of others to adopt or fail to adopt
a proposed solution to a problemto commit the Stupidity Attribution Error is to choose incorrectly to attribute to stupidity the decision of others to adopt or fail to adopt a proposed solution to a problem, or to adopt or fail to adopt a concept as part of their ongoing deliberations. In choosing to attribute their decision to stupidity in preference to any number of alternative possible attributions, we expose ourselves to risk of error when we fail to consider those alternatives.
Before listing some of those alternatives, we must distinguish them from "stupidity." In everyday parlance, stupidity is slow-wittedness. It is a lack of intelligence that limits the ability to think clearly and to reason to conclusions on the basis of evidence. With that definition of stupidity in mind, let's consider some alternative reasons why someone might make what we consider a wrong-headed decision. In what follows, I'll use the name Albert to refer to the person whom Jordan regards as "stupid."
- Ignorance is the state of being unaware. It's possible that Albert fails to find Jordan's arguments persuasive because he lacks knowledge that's required to understand Jordan's arguments. Or possibly Albert cannot weigh Jordan's points appropriately because he lacks the knowledge needed to do so.
- If we could provide Albert with the missing knowledge, he might be fully capable of grasping Jordan's ideas. But we don't always know what knowledge is missing. Even if we do know, Albert might not be willing to accept it, especially if it's forced upon him in a disrespectful or condescending manner.
- In terms of its effects, being misinformed is similar to being ignorant. Misinformation can lead Albert to evaluate Jordan's arguments incorrectly. But in some ways, misinformation can be more destructive of group interaction, because providing the correct information isn't always sufficient to motivate the misinformed to alter their decisions or judgments.
- As with ignorance, we don't always know what misinformation needs correcting. And providing correct information might not be sufficient — invalidating the misinformation might also be necessary. In the moment, that can be difficult.
- Some people are unable to deal with certain issues rationally. For example, race bias, gender bias, or other social biases can distort assessments of performance or capability. (See "The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work," Point Lookout for February 21, 2018, for more) Some feel compelled to bully or harass subordinates. Worse, perhaps, are those who feel compelled to abuse organizational authority to bully or harass others or to gain personal advantage — economic or otherwise.
- Using reasoned argument to adjust the attitudes or behavior of such people is rarely effective. But it's plainly incorrect to conclude that these people are "stupid" solely on the basis that their compulsions make them immune to rational argument.
- In some debate situations, the person who actually decides the issue in question isn't a participant in the debate. For example, Albert's supervisor, Super-Albert, might have instructed him not to agree to any of Jordan's proposals. And further, Super-Albert might have told Albert to "be creative" about the reasons for the positions he takes, so as to conceal the fact that he has been directed to reject Jordan's work. "Directed" might actually be a misleading term if Albert understands Super-Albert to be threatening him with termination or disciplinary action if he deviates from Super-Albert's plan.
- Even when coercion is at the root of what seems to be irrational behavior, we don't always have evidence that coercion is a factor. And frequently, coerced individuals are reluctant to disclose the coercion. Some experience shame about being coerced. Others fear — reasonably — that disclosing the coercion could have even more severe consequences than violating the original directive would have.
There are many more possible alternatives to stupidity as explanations for someone's apparent inability to grasp the truth in an argument. One alternative worthy of special mention is a lack of critical thinking skills (See "Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza," Point Lookout for April 23, 2003). Critical thinking is the process of drawing sound inferences based on evidence and principles. To think critically requires discipline. More important, critical thinking requires strict avoidance of the traps and tricks that are so common in casual debate, such as Rhetorical Fallacies, deception, self-deception, entrapment, or withholding information. Someone who lacks critical thinking skills, or who chooses not to apply them, might appear to be slow-witted. But to repeatedly attribute to stupidity a failure to apply critical thinking skills could be perhaps the best example of the stupidity attribution error. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
- Bullet Point Madness: II
- Decision makers in many organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of a series of bullet points
or a series of series of bullet points. Briefers who combine this format with a variety of persuasion
techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions.
- Risk Acceptance: One Path
- When a project team decides to accept a risk, and when their project eventually experiences that risk,
a natural question arises: What were they thinking? Cognitive biases, other psychological phenomena,
and organizational dysfunction all can play roles.
- Choice-Supportive Bias
- Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to assess our past choices as more fitting
than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations
interested in improving decision processes.
See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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