What Is The Elementary Attribution Error?
What if a learner refuses to study?
On a damp summer evening, George Williams was clocked at 78 mph in a 35 mph zone. He ran four red lights when the police followed him. He finally stopped, jumped out of his car, and ran into a building.
What do you think of George so far?
He collapsed a few steps into the building. Nurses raved about him and put compresses on the wounds they could see. After four hours of surgery and three months of physical therapy, George made a full recovery.
What do you think of george
What is the basic attribution error?
The fundamental attributional error (FAE) is when you assume that a person’s behavior is due to their nature rather than their circumstances. We all fall prey to it. The deaf-headed person who cuts you off in traffic is clearly a terrible person.
Of course, if you’ve cut someone off in traffic, there’s a good reason for that. You were about to be late for a meeting, or someone was injured, or one of your children was in an emergency situation in the bathroom. You can excuse your own behavior, but there are no excuses for others. If someone acts like an idiot, he has to be an idiot.
Full Disclosure: I’ve made this mistake for years. I do research and analysis for an online eLearning platform (Amplifire). In many other systems, you can just pop a stapler on the space bar, have a coffee, and your workout will be over when you come back. But with us you actually have to master the material. We have developed sophisticated behavior analysis algorithms that attempt to identify when someone is trying to rush through Amplifire without learning. For the longest time I have referred to people who do this – who interact with the system in a decoupled or insincere way – as “goofballs”.
An example of goofballery: answering “I don’t know yet” in less time than it could possibly take to read a question over and over again. (We even have messages that come up and make it clear that their strategy isn’t working. One of the messages ends with them saying, “Look, you might as well just learn.”)
A case study: Acme
But what I have to keep in mind is that someone who engages in goofball is not necessarily a goofball. I learned this lesson very carefully from one of our customers. Let’s call her Acme. They used Amplifire in a multi-week onboarding program for new call center agents.
Even before we had algorithmic behavior categorization, we had an idea of what a sucker looked like in our standard reports. A couple of Acme learners fit the bill perfectly. They rushed through questions but took longer than average to learn and struggled to understand even basic concepts. It was clear that something other than normal, engaged learning was going on.
I was a huge fan of naming reports after the question they answer. Sometimes a report user might want a learning progress report. But sometimes they just want to know who’s not done. So we should give them a “who ain’t finished?” Give. Report.
The goofballs at Acme got me to say, “Who should I reprimand?” or “Who is screwing around?” Report. Maybe even a “Who should I fire?” Report. It’s exactly the kind of insight that call center customers are looking for. The success metrics almost self-calculate: cost savings from reducing the size of training classes, as well as improved call performance once the trainees become agents (since you’ve filtered out those who don’t seem to care about the company or know how to do it well ).
Cooler minds prevailed, and we went to Acme instead with a few names and a strange tone. We asked what they thought might be going on and let them contact the trainees. They came back to us with awe and gratitude … but not for the reasons the FAE expected me to. Instead, a trainee lived in his car in the training center parking lot. You can imagine that this type of stress would cause you to break away from parts of your job that you don’t know are important. The other trainee’s father had just died. He was in no shape for an exercise program that week … but managed to pull it together the following week.
Who needs your help
So my new name for the Goofball report is “Who needs YOUR help?” These trainees needed the opposite of firing, they needed support. Our data detected this, but I fell victim to the basic mapping error. They weren’t bad employees, they were employees going through a bad time.
My team and I try to avoid the FAE in our report labels and data interpretations. I also do this in my personal life. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I wish them the best of luck. Well, I’ll try anyway. IM working on it.
We know that sometimes people make decisions with misinformation and uncertainty that lead to mistakes. Sometimes people have difficulty learning.