How a single 'error' trips up sustainability progress

Lately, I've been reading books about how humans think, including "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath, "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink and "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. They've helped me search for ideas on how to more effectively influence others to serve as better stewards of our future.

One way to achieve this, I've discovered, is to avoid a common fallacy in human reasoning called Fundamental Attribution Error, or FAE.

Originally coined by Lee Ross at Stanford (although described much earlier), FAE is the human tendency to overestimate the role that people's personalities play in their observable behavior while discounting situational factors. In other words, instead of considering the circumstances that may have led to someone's actions, we infer basic personality traits as the cause. 

I first came across this concept in a book more than 20 years ago. I can't remember the title or author, and I'm pretty sure FAE terminology wasn't used. But the author described how people might, for example, look at a woman who hadn't shaved her legs and infer something about her politics or sexual orientation. Of course, such inferences could be true.

But it also could be that the woman belonged to a church that didn't believe in shaving one's legs; was traveling, forgot her razor and hadn't had time to shop (been there); was just weary of the time it takes to adhere to social convention (been there, too); was too young and wasn't allowed to shave yet; or just got back from camping in Vermont. There are any number of reasons the woman could have made her choice that have nothing do with personality. 

Back then, examples of FAE amused me. Now, they just make me angry. 

FAE and sustainability

Normally, FAE is used when describing how one individual presumes to judge another's character from observing her behavior in a single situation. But the form I encounter frequently in my job is when a broad assertion is made about the motivations or beliefs of everyone in a group, organization or category, based solely on one statement, action or position.

A basic principle of sustainability initiatives is that no one knows everything and we must bring all parties to the table to find truly sustainable alternatives. How is this possible if at least one party is confident that anyone who disagrees with them is evil?

I was speaking last year to a pretty conservative businessman (as it happens, not someone from the EMC Corporation) about sustainability, which he supported for good solid business reasons. When I asked him whether he felt it was important to preserve resources for future generations, he said, "Yeah, of course. But those 'environmentalists' [air-quotes] — they don't care about people, only spotted owls." Okay, so there are treehuggers who do feel that way. But I can assure you that some of us self-professed "environmentalists" believe that people are part of the environment.

The problem with a Manichean outlook

FAE is related to another common human foible: a tendency to embrace Manichean outlooks. Derived from Manichaeism, a dualistic religious philosophy founded by a third-century Persian prophet, this philosophy assumes that only two positions exist: black or white, good or evil, with us or against us. Aside from the fact that this presents a nearly impenetrable psychological wall that is very hard to argue against, it's just really frustrating. (And I don't know about you, but when I'm angry, I am not at my best when it comes to listening, empathizing or persuading.) 

Here's a recent example. I was talking to someone regarding e-waste, an issue about which I am passionate. As an industry, we know we have to create less electronic waste; find new materials so that any waste created is less harmful to the environment and human health; try to prevent the waste from ending up in a landfill or from being taken apart on kitchen stoves or in open-air acid baths; redirect more of the many non-renewable materials back into the supply chain; and find ways for the informal workers who have been subsisting on e-waste to get economic benefits without poisoning their children.

Whew — that's a difficult task.

So I dared to wonder out loud as to whether banning the shipment of e-waste to developing economies really would solve the core problem, given the growing volumes of locally created e-waste in those countries. Know what the person I was talking to said? "Companies that question this approach just want to make money by poisoning children."

Give me some credit — I kept my mouth shut when he said this (no, really!).

It's not just corporate types and NGOs that do this; politicians do it constantly. Perhaps one of the most succinct and quintessential examples of FAE is the not-uncommon "People on welfare are lazy."

Here's the thing: I'm human, too. I, like everyone else, would love to believe that I'm above these errors. But I'd be lying to myself. And so would you.

So do me a favor. If you catch me committing the FAE, call me on it. Make me use another common foible — "confirmation bias," the tendency to favor interpretation of evidence to support pre-existing beliefs — to broaden my thinking. Say to me, "Imagine that this behavior you are demonizing had been exhibited by someone that you love and respect. What sequence of events might have led him to do that? Is it even remotely possible that something similar is happening here?" In return, I promise to do the same for you.

This might not work — but then, I wouldn't be in the sustainability field if I weren't an optimist.

Banana peel photo by Andrei Shumskiy via Shutterstock