Tonight, Jarrett links to a post by Michael D about something called "the fundamental attribution error." I know that this is one of those bits of jargon that, no matter how many times I read a definition, I'm going to say, "which one is that again?" Because I think there are all kinds of attribution errors, and people are going to differ about which one is fundamental.
This particular fundamental attribution error involves people thinking that they themselves are acting rationally based on their circumstances, but that others are acting based on "personality" or "disposition." Michael and Jarrett claim (on a completely anecdotal basis, I might add!) that transit advocates and driving advocates each believe that they are making rational decisions, but the transit advocates think that people drive because of "the car culture," and driving advocates think that people ride the bus because they're "some kind of environmentalists."
Sometimes when I wander into somebody else's field of science I'm just dumbfounded by the things they argue over. Reading the maze of Wikipedia articles on social psychology, I feel like Gulliver with the Little-Endians and Big-Endians: you can break your eggs in the middle, you know!
There's more than one false dichotomy involved in this notion of a "fundamental attribution error." First of all, there's more to irrationality than personality and disposition! There's a whole host of cognitive biases. I think it's pretty nutty (and I'm talking about the social psychologists who came up with this idea, not about Jarrett and Michael) to ignore cognitive biases even as you're accusing people of cognitive bias. Right?
Secondly, nobody is purely rational (not even Mr. Spock) and nobody is purely irrational. Everyone's got a mix of the two, and in fact I would argue that no single decision is perfectly rational or perfectly irrational. Maybe you can map out a flawless decision process using symbolic logic, but who's to say that the decision wasn't influenced just as much by a car commercial they saw on TV? On the other hand, even if someone is clearly following some cultural norm, who's to say that they're not also making a well-though-out choice? And why is being "some kind of environmentalist" an irrational aspect of disposition or personality, instead of a rational choice, anyway?
In the realm of transportation specifically, you can argue that people make rational decisions based on their situations, but you could also imagine two people in the exact same situation who make different decisions. How many of us have had the experience of a co-worker who lives nearby but drives to work, while we take transit? Sometimes they have different priorities. Sometimes they're irrational. Sometimes we're irrational.
Jarrett and Michael also don't acknowledge that situations can be the result of choices - not just of government policies, but of individual decisions. Why did one person choose to live in a sprawly subdivision and another in a walkable neighborhood? Why did one choose to work in an office park and another downtown? Those decisions also have the same mix of rational and irrational that all human decisions have.
Jarrett claims that this is "the most important blog post you'll read this year," because "It's about a conceptual error that lies at the root of a lot of bad transit planning decisions." While it is certainly important to be aware of this post, I think it's no more important than the post that will spell out all the irrationality involved in transportation choices, and how transit planning can deal with that irrationality properly.
Also, guys, before you go claiming that this error is so widespread, it would be nice if we had some actual data about its prevalence. A single real-world example would be nice, too. Thanks!