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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
“Psychologists refer to the inappropriate use of dispositional explanation as
the fundamental attribution error, that is, explaining situation-induced behavior
as caused by enduring character traits of the agent.”
— Jon Elster
The problem with any concept of “character” driving behavior is that “character” is pretty hard to pin down. We call someone “moral” or “honest,” we call them “courageous” or “naive” or any other number of names. The implicit connotation is that someone “honest” in one area will be “honest” in most others, or someone “moral” in one situation is going to be “moral” elsewhere.
Old-time folk psychology supports the notion, of course. As Jon Elster points out in his wonderful book Explaining Social Behavior, folk wisdom would have us believe that much of this “predicting and understanding behavior” thing is pretty darn easy! Simply ascertain character, and use that as a basis to predict or explain action.
People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption. “Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.” “Who lies also steals.” “Who steals an egg will steal an ox.” “Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.” “Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.” If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behavior should be easy.
A single action will reveal the underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behavior on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself. The procedure is not tautological, as it would be if we took cheating on an exam as evidence of dishonesty and then used the trait of dishonesty to explain the cheating. Instead, it amounts to using cheating on an exam as evidence for a trait (dishonesty) that will also cause the person to be unfaithful to a spouse. If one accepts the more extreme folk theory that all virtues go together, the cheating might also be used to predict cowardice in battle or excessive drinking.
This is a very natural and tempting way to approach the understanding of people. We like to think of actions that “speak volumes” about others’ character, thus using that as a basis to predict or understand their behavior in other realms.
For example, let’s say you were interviewing a financial advisor. He shows up on time, in a nice suit, and buys lunch. He says all the right words. Will he handle your money correctly?
Almost all of us would be led to believe he would, reasoning that his sharp appearance, timeliness, and generosity point towards his “good character”.
But what the study of history shows us is that appearances are flawed, and behavior in one context often does not have correlation to behavior in other contexts. Judging character becomes complex when we appreciate the situational nature of our actions. The U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was an arrogant bully and a liar who stole an election when he was young. He also fought like hell to pass the Civil Rights Act, something almost no other politician could have done.
Henry Ford standardized and streamlined the modern automobile and made it affordable to the masses, while paying “better than fair” wages to his employees and generally treating them well and with respect, something many “Titans” of business had trouble with in his day. He was also a notorious anti-Semite! If it’s true that “He who is moral in one respect is also moral in all respects,” then what are we to make of this?
Jon Elster has some other wonderful examples coming from the world of music, regarding impulsivity versus discipline:
The jazz musician Charlie Parker was characterized by a doctor who knew him as “a man living from moment to moment. A man living for the pleasure principle, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality arrested at an infantile level.” Another great jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, had an even more extreme present-oriented attitude in his daily life, never saving any of his substantial earnings, but spending them on whims or on expensive cars, which he quickly proceeded to crash. In many ways he was the incarnation of the stereotype of “the Gypsy.” Yet you do not become a musician of the caliber of Parker and Reinhardt if you live in the moment in all respects. Proficiency takes years of utter dedication and concentration. In Reinhardt’s case, this was dramatically brought out when he damaged his left hand severely in a fire and retrained himself so that he could achieve more with two fingers than anyone else with four. If these two musicians had been impulsive and carefree across the board — if their “personality” had been consistently “infantile” — they could never have become such consummate artists.
Once we realize this truth, it seems obvious. We begin seeing it everywhere. Dan Ariely wrote a book about situational dishonesty and cheating which we have written about before. Judith Rich Harris based her theory of child development on the idea that children do not behave the same elsewhere as they do at home, misleading parents into thinking they were molding their children. Good interviewing and hiring is a notoriously difficult problem because we are consistently misled into thinking that what we learn in the interview process is representative of the interviewee’s general competence. Books have been written about the Halo Effect, a similar idea that good behavior in one area creates a “halo” around all behavior.
The reason we see this everywhere is because it’s how the world works!
This basic truth is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, the belief that behavior in one context carries over with any consistency into other areas.
Studying the error leads us to conclude that we have a natural tendency to:
A. Over-rate some general consideration of “character” and,
B. Under-rate the “power of the situation”, and its direct incentives, to compel a variety of behavior.
Elster describes a social psychology experiment that effectively demonstrates how quickly any thought of “morality” can be lost in the right situation:
In another experiment, theology students were told to prepare themselves to give a brief talk in a nearby building. One-half were told to build the talk around the Good Samaritan parable(!), whereas the others were given a more neutral topic. One group was told to hurry since the people in the other building were waiting for them, whereas another was told that they had plenty of time. On their way to the other building, subjects came upon a man slumping in the doorway, apparently in distress. Among the students who were told they were late, only 10 percent offered assistance; in the other group, 63 percent did so. The group that had been told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan was not more likely to behave as one. Nor was the behavior of the students correlated with answers to a questionnaire intended to measure whether their interest in religion was due to the desire for personal salvation or to a desire to help others. The situational factor — being hurried or not — had much greater explanatory power than any dispositional factor.
So with a direct incentive in front of them — not wanting to be late when people were waiting for them, which could cause shame — the idea of being a Good Samaritan was thrown right out the window! So much for good character.
What we need to appreciate is that, in the words of Elster, “Behavior is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.” A shy young boy on the playground might be the most outgoing and aggressive boy in his group of friends. A moral authority in the realm of a religious institution might well cheat on their taxes. A woman who treats her friends poorly might treat her family with reverence and care.
We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course. Elster refers to contingent response tendencies that would carry from situation to situation, but they tend to be specific rather than general. If we break down character into specific interactions between person and types of situations, we can understand things a little more accurately.
Instead of calling someone a “liar,” we might understand that they lie on their taxes but are honest with their spouse. Instead of calling someone a “hard worker,” we might come to understand that they drive hard in work situations, but simply cannot be bothered to work around the house. And so on. We should pay attention to the interplay between the situation, the incentives and the nature of the person, rather than just assuming that a broad character trait applies in all situations.
This carries two corollaries:
A. As we learn to think more accurately, we get one step closer to understanding human nature as it really is. We can better understand the people with whom we coexist.
B. We might better understand ourselves! Imagine if you could be the rare individual whose positive traits truly did carry over into all, or at least all important, situations. You would be traveling an uncrowded road.
Want More? Check out our ever-growing database of mental models.
“But now we are starting to show genetic influence on individual differences using DNA. DNA is a game changer; it’s a lot harder to argue with DNA than it is with a twin study or an adoption study.”
— Robert Plomin
It’s not controversial to say that our genetics help explain our physical traits. Tall parents will, on average, have tall children. Overweight parents will, on average, have overweight children. Irish parents have Irish looking kids. This is true to the point of banality and only a committed ignorant would dispute it.
It’s slightly more controversial to talk about genes influencing behavior. For a long time, it was denied entirely. For most of the 20th century, the “experts” in human behavior had decided that “nurture” beat “nature” with a score of 100-0. Particularly influential was the child’s early life — the way their parents treated them in the womb and throughout early childhood. (Thanks Freud!)
So, where are we at now?
Developmental scientists and behavioral scientists eventually got to work with twin studies and adoption studies, which tended to show that certain traits were almost certainly heritable and not reliant on environment, thanks to the natural controlled experiments of twins separated at birth. (This eventually provided fodder for Judith Rich Harris’s wonderful work on development and personality.)
All throughout, the geneticists, starting with Gregor Mendel and his peas, kept on working. As behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin explains, the genetic camp split early on. Some people wanted to understand the gene itself in detail, using very simple traits to figure it out (eye color, long or short wings, etc.) and others wanted to study the effect of genes on complex behavior, generally:
People realized these two views of genetics could come together. Nonetheless, the two worlds split apart because Mendelians became geneticists who were interested in understanding genes. They would take a convenient phenotype, a dependent measure, like eye color in flies, just something that was easy to measure. They weren’t interested in the measure, they were interested in how genes work. They wanted a simple way of seeing how genes work.
By contrast, the geneticists studying complex traits—the Galtonians—became quantitative geneticists. They were interested in agricultural traits or human traits, like cardiovascular disease or reading ability, and would use genetics only insofar as it helped them understand that trait. They were behavior centered, while the molecular geneticists were gene centered. The molecular geneticists wanted to know everything about how a gene worked. For almost a century these two worlds of genetics diverged.
Eventually, the two began to converge. One camp (the gene people) figured out that once we could sequence the genome, they might be able to understand more complicated behavior by looking directly at genes in specific people with unique DNA, and contrasting them against one another.
The reason why this whole gene-behavior game is hard is because, as Plomin makes clear, complex traits like intelligence are not like eye color. There’s no “smart gene” — it comes from the interaction of thousands of different genes and can occur in a variety of combinations. Basic Mendel-style counting (the sort of dominant/recessive eye color gene thing you learned in high school biology) doesn’t work in analyzing the influence of genes on complex traits:
The word gene wasn’t invented until 1903. Mendel did his work in the mid-19th century. In the early 1900s, when Mendel was rediscovered, people finally realized the impact of what he did, which was to show the laws of inheritance of a single gene. At that time, these Mendelians went around looking for Mendelian 3:1 segregation ratios, which was the essence of what Mendel showed, that inheritance was discreet. Most of the socially, behaviorally, or agriculturally important traits aren’t either/or traits, like a single-gene disorder. Huntington’s disease, for example, is a single-gene dominant disorder, which means that if you have that mutant form of the Huntington’s gene, you will have Huntington’s disease. It’s necessary and sufficient. But that’s not the way complex traits work.
The importance of genetics is hard to understate, but until the right technology came along, we could only observe it indirectly. A study might have shown that 50% of the variance in cognitive ability was due to genetics, but we had no idea which specific genes, in which combinations, actually produced smarter people.
But the Moore’s law style improvement in genetic testing means that we can cheaply and effectively map out entire genomes for a very low cost. And with that, the geneticists have a lot of data to work with, a lot of correlations to begin sussing out. The good thing about finding strong correlations between genes and human traits is that we know which one is causative: The gene! Obviously, your reading ability doesn’t cause you to have certain DNA; it must be the other way around. So “Big Data” style screening is extremely useful, once we get a little better at it.
The problem is that, so far, the successes have been a bit minimal. There are millions of “ATCG” base pairs to check on. As Plomin points out, we can only pinpoint about 20% of the specific genetic influence for something simple like height, which we know is about 90% heritable. Complex traits like schizophrenia are going to take a lot of work:
We’ve got to be able to figure out where the so-called missing heritability is, that is, the gap between the DNA variants that we are able to identify and the estimates we have from twin and adoption studies. For example, height is about 90 percent heritable, meaning, of the differences between people in height, about 90 percent of those differences can be explained by genetic differences. With genome-wide association studies, we can account for 20 percent of the variance of height, or a quarter of the heritability of height. That’s still a lot of missing heritability, but 20 percent of the variance is impressive.
With schizophrenia, for example, people say they can explain 15 percent of the genetic liability. The jury is still out on how that translates into the real world. What you want to be able to do is get this polygenic score for schizophrenia that would allow you to look at the entire population and predict who’s going to become schizophrenic. That’s tricky because the studies are case-control studies based on extreme, well-diagnosed schizophrenics, versus clean controls who have no known psychopathology. We’ll know soon how this polygenic score translates to predicting who will become schizophrenic or not.
It brings up an interesting question that gets us back to the beginning of the piece: If we know that genetics have an influence on some complex behavioral traits (and we do), and we can with the continuing progress of science and technology, sequence a baby’s genome and predict to a certain extent their reading level, facility with math, facility with social interaction, etc., do we do it?
Well, we can’t until we get a general recognition that genes do indeed influence behavior and do have predictive power as far as how children perform. So far, the track record on getting educators to see that it’s all quite real is pretty bad. Like the Freudians before, there’s a resistance to the “nature” aspect of the debate, probably influenced by some strong ideologies:
If you look at the books and the training that teachers get, genetics doesn’t get a look-in. Yet if you ask teachers, as I’ve done, about why they think children are so different in their ability to learn to read, and they know that genetics is important. When it comes to governments and educational policymakers, the knee-jerk reaction is that if kids aren’t doing well, you blame the teachers and the schools; if that doesn’t work, you blame the parents; if that doesn’t work, you blame the kids because they’re just not trying hard enough. An important message for genetics is that you’ve got to recognize that children are different in their ability to learn. We need to respect those differences because they’re genetic. Not that we can’t do anything about it.
It’s like obesity. The NHS is thinking about charging people to be fat because, like smoking, they say it’s your fault. Weight is not as heritable as height, but it’s highly heritable. Maybe 60 percent of the differences in weight are heritable. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. If you stop eating, you won’t gain weight, but given the normal life in a fast-food culture, with our Stone Age brains that want to eat fat and sugar, it’s much harder for some people.
We need to respect the fact that genetic differences are important, not just for body mass index and weight, but also for things like reading disability. I know personally how difficult it is for some children to learn to read. Genetics suggests that we need to have more recognition that children differ genetically, and to respect those differences. My grandson, for example, had a great deal of difficulty learning to read. His parents put a lot of energy into helping him learn to read. We also have a granddaughter who taught herself to read. Both of them now are not just learning to read but reading to learn.
Genetic influence is just influence; it’s not deterministic like a single gene. At government levels—I’ve consulted with the Department for Education—I don’t think they’re as hostile to genetics as I had feared, they’re just ignorant of it. Education just doesn’t consider genetics, whereas teachers on the ground can’t ignore it. I never get static from them because they know that these children are different when they start. Some just go off on very steep trajectories, while others struggle all the way along the line. When the government sees that, they tend to blame the teachers, the schools, or the parents, or the kids. The teachers know. They’re not ignoring this one child. If anything, they’re putting more energy into that child.
It’s frustrating for Plomin because he knows that eventually DNA mapping will get good enough that real, and helpful, predictions will be possible. We’ll be able to target kids early enough to make real differences — earlier than problems actually manifest — and hopefully change the course of their lives for the better. But so far, no dice.
Education is the last backwater of anti-genetic thinking. It’s not even anti-genetic. It’s as if genetics doesn’t even exist. I want to get people in education talking about genetics because the evidence for genetic influence is overwhelming. The things that interest them—learning abilities, cognitive abilities, behavior problems in childhood—are the most heritable things in the behavioral domain. Yet it’s like Alice in Wonderland. You go to educational conferences and it’s as if genetics does not exist.
I’m wondering about where the DNA revolution will take us. If we are explaining 10 percent of the variance of GCSE scores with a DNA chip, it becomes real. People will begin to use it. It’s important that we begin to have this conversation. I’m frustrated at having so little success in convincing people in education of the possibility of genetic influence. It is ignorance as much as it is antagonism.
Here’s one call for more reality recognition.
Still Interested? Check out a book by John Brookman of Edge.org with a curated collection of articles published on genetics.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once wrote:
While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal – health, beauty, money or power – is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.
If money cannot make us happy, what does?
In this excellent TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes:
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last blockon a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.
Attention is energy.
Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.
Why do experts seem to have better intuition than the rest of us when operating within their Circle of Competence. Are they doing something the rest of us are not?
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes:
The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.
Intuition is recognition of something we’ve seen before. We recognize a situation and we intuitively know how to respond. Perhaps this is a result of direct experience (we’ve lived it) and perhaps it’s indirect experience (we’ve read about it).
This connects with something Herbert Simon, another Nobel laureate, wrote on expertness and intuition:
We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.
Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly—and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant.
Chess grandmasters, looking at the chessboard, will generally form a hypothesis about the best move within five seconds, and in four out of five cases, this initial hypothesis will be the move they ultimately prefer. Moreover, it can be shown that this ability accounts for a very large proportion of their chess skill. For, if required to play very rapidly, the grandmaster may not maintain a grandmaster level of play but will almost always maintain a master level, even though in rapid play there is time for almost nothing but to react to the first cues that are noticed on the board.
We usually use the word “intuition” – sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” – to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately.
In his autobiography, Models of My Life, Simon further elaborates on the difference between expert decision makers and the rest of us.
The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before finally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgment” or “intuition.” If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would find that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.
One of the ways we can acquire “a checklist of things to watch out for” is to learn how the world really works and adapt ourselves accordingly.
If you want to get going on this, start with the Latticework of Mental Models.
… The most basic problem that I identify is an example of what is known as the Halo Effect. When a company is doing well—when its revenues and profits are up, and its share price is strong—it’s natural to infer that the company has a good strategy, an effective leader, excellent customer focus, and a vibrant corporate culture. When that same company falters, it’s easy to say that the strategy was misguided, the leader became ineffective, the culture became complacent, and the customer was neglected.
In fact, very often the company did not change much at all. Rather, people made different attributions based on its changing performance. Unfortunately, so much that we read about companies—in the business press, case studies, and even large sample research studies—is based on data that are undermined by the Halo Effect. These studies appear to have described the factors that lead to high performance, but are more correctly understood as identifying the ways that high performing companies tend to be described.
Relying on data that are undermined by the Halo Effect leads to several further errors of thinking, one of which is particularly relevant in the context of management consulting. I call it the Delusion of Absolute Performance, and it helps explain why formulas for business success have never worked, and will never work.
Simply stated, in a competitive market economy, business performance is better understood as relative, not absolute. A company may improve in absolute terms but still fall further behind its rivals.
Phil Rosenzweig is the author of the Halo Effect, which might be the best $10 you ever spent.