Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fundamental errors

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!


Anonymous said...

I believe you're misunderstanding the so-called fundamental attribution error. It is the empirically-supported claim that people underestimate the influence of situational or environmental factors on the behavior of others, and nothing more. This isn't about any irrationality of decision-making, but about the sources of input to the decision-making of others. I would ask readers to look at my original post, as it may prove less outlandish than the Cap'n's commentary would suggest.

People do indeed affect their situation, and it's certainly interesting to consider, but I don't see that this affects the point. As long as the person is not in full control of their environment, it is reasonable to talk about the influence of the situation they find themselves in.

As for a real-world example, a prototypical one was helpfully linked in a comment.

Mike Fogel said...

The fundamental attribution error isn't about rationality or irrationality... it's about how people explain observed human behavior.

Imagine some person sees some set of human behaviors. If those behaviors were their own, they will tend to say "I did that because of X, Y, and Z". Whereas, if those behaviors were somebody else's, they tend to say "They did that because they're that type of person." That's it... the fundamental attribution error says nothing about the 'real' cause of the behaviors, nor whether the behaviors are rational or not.

Michael and Jarrett are applying this broad pattern to one particular type of human behavior - transportation mode choice. Seems to me they've done so successfully in a simple and straightforward manner.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for responding, both Michaels. But the example that you point to does not in fact attribute use of transit to disposition. Shawn Taylor's article is clearly arguing that students and "the poor" take transit because of their situations, and that if you changed their situations by giving them all Priuses, they would do the supposedly rational thing and drive the Priuses.

Michael J, the fact that the interpretation is referred to as an "error" indicates that there is some "real" cause of the behavior, and that the observer is wrong about it.

I've got another post coming up about this issue.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call being poor a property of the situation, because it is an aspect of that particular person, albeit not a "dispositional" one. The quality of a road, on the other hand, is not a property of any person using it. But the person can indeed change over time or be changed by external influences.

What Peter Shawn Taylor doesn't ask, but should, is how many of the poor people in the region drive. The answer could very well be a majority of them (owing to the low-density form of much of the area), in which case their personal financial situation is clearly insufficient to explain behavior, and one must look to the broader situation.

The regional transit agency here has been steadily improving service and getting corresponding ridership growth (much faster than population growth), and this trend preceded any mandatory student passes. The agency was consolidated ten years ago from two smaller agencies, and it has nearly doubled ridership in that time. In fact a recent report (the one referred to in the column) showed a significant upward shift in the income profile of riders. An express bus route has seen tremendous usage including a sizeable number of riders (13%) who had a vehicle available for the trip.

The above shows the effect of the situation (improved service) that Mr. Taylor ignores in favor of assuming that substantially improved service (frequent and comfortable light rail on a useful corridor) will show no difference in the kinds of people taking transit.

-Michael D

Alon Levy said...

If you want to attack Taylor's column, then it's really a fish in a barrel thing. For example, he compared the cost of light rail to the cost of a Prius. That might be witty enough in high-cost US cities like Seattle, but in Canada, it's just insane. Canadian light rail rarely costs more than C$10,000 per rider, which is one quarter the cost of a Prius. In Calgary it cost $2,500 per rider.

Cap'n Transit said...

Michael, if being poor is a property of the person, then so is living too far away from transit, and vice versa.

Alon Levy said...

People don't choose to be poor.