What if there really is no villain?

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Ethical decision-making
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Back in the 60s psychologists identified something called fundamental attribution error. In short, it is the tendency to ascribe too much importance to individual characteristics and too little to situational factors.

In short:

we want to hold onto the idea that if something’s happened, someone wanted it to happen and made it happen (Nick Chater*)

To illustrate attribution error at work, consider the difference between Michael Moore’s two most high-profile films. One of the strengths of ‘Bowling for Columbine’, I felt, was how he resisted the temptation to designate a villain in his search to understand the United States’ obsession with violence. It was an exploration of multiple causes, none of them easily remediable. Then, bizarrely, in his next film ‘Fahrenheit 911’ he did the complete opposite and blamed the Bush family and Saudi royals for a large share of the world’s ills.

Traits that contribute to attribution error include:

(1) Pattern recognition; wanting to connect the dots.

(2) The preference to personalise things that are abstract

This goes on all the time, and it’s partly a result of the personality cult model of corporate leadership. I can remember during the antitrust action against Microsoft in the late 1990s, Microsoft Inc and Bill Gates were almost synonymous.

More prevalent in the West

People in more individualistic societies (e.g. the USA, UK, Canada and Australia) are more susceptible to fundamental attribution error, which shouldn’t be surprising. They are more likely to buy in to the myth of the heroic leader.

Yes of course senior leaders have a greater-than-average ability to bring about change, but they aren’t the only people with influence in a workplace or organisation.

Now it has occurred to me that there is a consequence of this: all of our clever systems of transparency and accountability such as America’s Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank laws are built on the premise of the individual wrongdoer. We don’t simply take things on trust; we check. The problem is, it’s all built on the assumption that we need to find the ‘bad eggs’, making us blind to systemic issues. Attribution error is surely part of this. These regulations come about as a result of bad press and a belief that there must have been some kind of malfeasance. Don’t get me wrong: Often this is the case … just not always.

I hope we can move more to a ‘no fault liability’ model in corporate regulation; more solution-oriented and less punishment-oriented. Pillorying doesn’t serve the public interest as much as having companies that do little harm.


Related posts:

  1. […] and the moral status of human actors involved becomes irrelevant. This view has its place (see post) but if you apply it universally, you will end up ascribing unrealistic levels of responsibility to […]

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