I first heard the term "Fundamental Attribution Error" in 2014, in a Medium post that was going around some bicycling social circles. The author, Carl Alviani, pointed to the tendency of people — especially those who should know better, like NPR's Scott Simon — to over-emphasize the relevance of anecdotal evidences, particularly when it comes to shitty cyclists.
Alviani went on to explain:
The problem, of course, is that no matter how egregious their behavior was, the three people [Simon] observed don't indicate that "cyclists consider themselves above the law," any more than a pair of jaywalkers prove that pedestrians are morally opposed to crosswalks.
When a bike blows a stop sign, though, we're more likely to see it as evidence that "cyclists think they're above the law." The social psychology term for this bias is "fundamental attribution error": the tendency to attribute the actions of others to their inherent nature rather than their situation, and the less we sympathize with their situation, the greater the bias. A 2002 study from the UK's Transport Research Laboratory found that it plays a starring role in our perceptions of traffic behavior, with drivers far more likely to see a cyclist's infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver. It may also help explain why I've been approached more than once while holding my bike by random strangers, asking me to explain the behavior of another cyclist they once saw doing something stupid. I ride a bike, therefore I'm one of them.
As Alviani points out, there is plentiful evidence to demonstrable prove that urban cyclists are no more likely than anything else to pose a threat to pedestrian safety, or flagrantly disregard the law, and otherwise cause problems in a traffic system that was working well without them. But cyclists tend to bear the brunt of this hatred because they stand out as being "abnormal." For whatever reason, people have largely come to accept the presence of cars, and an infrastructure built to accommodate them above all. There are lots of shitty drivers out there, of course, but that's treated as an accepted, normalized phenomenon. Bikes, however, are different — so when there's a bad bicycle, it's an extra-bad indictment on all bicycles!
This assessment is, of course, bullshit. But it's a very real human tendency. In a Simply Psychology essay about Fundamental Attribution Error, Dr. Saul McLeod says that, "People have a cognitive bias to assume that a person's actions depend on what 'kind' of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person." The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as:
the tendency to overestimate the degree to which an individual's behavior is determined by his or her abiding personal characteristics, attitudes, or beliefs and, correspondingly, to minimize the influence of the surrounding situation on that behavior (e.g., financial or social pressures). There is evidence that this tendency is more common in some societies than in others. Also called correspondence bias; overattribution bias.
Fundamental attribution error obviously extends far beyond cycling. That was just my first introduction to the (regrettably unmemorable) phrase. But I think cycling is a good microcosm for the utter absurdity of this unfortunate phenomenon — a way to stress the importance of pushing back against our petty instincts towards this error. Bicycles are largely harmless; in fact, the very same people who complain about That One Asshole On a Bike Who Blew Through A Stop Sign very probably own bicycles themselves! But that doesn't stop them from making assumptions.
You can extend that same thing to almost any form of bias. Consider a white person who says terrible things about Black people while insisting they have Black friends and are not racist. In the cars-vs-bicycles metaphor, they see white people as the cars — the normalized, accepted, default situation. When they see another white person do something shitty, it's just kind of accepted. But when a Black person does a similar thing, their brain over-emphasizes it, extrapolating the anecdote into a grand representation of all Black people. That's fundamental attribution error.
The more you think about fundamental attribution error, the more you see it popping up in almost every source of social tension. That self-awareness can help you understand how even the best-intentioned people can fall into the ugliest of petty psychological traps.
The only problem is that "Fundamental Attribution Error" is a really clunky and unsexy phrase that can be hard to remember. I think about it a lot, but I almost never remember the actual name of the phenomenon. I just think about the bikes as the metaphor.
Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things [Carl Alviani / Medium]
Strange As It Seems, Cycling Haters Are a Sign of Cycling Success [Eric Jaffe / Bloomberg]
Fundamental Attribution Error [Dr. Saul McLeod / Simply Psychology]
Image: Public Domain via PixaBay