Bias Eraser #5: Fundamental Attribution Error

Raise your hand if you are guilty of any of the following?

You review a resume and determine that a candidate is probably not worth interviewing because he appears to be a job hopper (e.g., short tenure with a couple of companies).

  • A candidate is late for an interview and despite a good conversation, you can’t help but feel the person is ultimately unreliable.
  • Even though you shouldn’t, you Facebook stalk a candidate and see party pictures (or other questionable content) that cause you to question her cultural fit.
  • You end up favoring one candidate over another because one of them has “manners” and sends you a “thank you” note while the other doesn’t.

Even if these don’t strike a note, the examples are all based on the same underlying bias. It is called the Fundamental Attribution Error and we all do it. The description from the Penn State Psychology Blog defines it best. “The fundamental attribution error states that we often judge other people’s actions as a result of some faulty personal characteristic they possess while failing to recognize the variety of situational factors that could be causing their behavior (Schneider, et al, 2012).”

The fundamental attribution bias can work in a couple of ways. First, we tend to believe that a single action “speaks volumes” about someone’s character, and we use that information to predict what we expect them to do across all situations. As an example, if you meet a financial planner who takes great pride in their appearance, you may wrongly assume they will take the same care with your money. Ask Bernie Madoff how that works out.

Second, the fundamental attribution bias may cause us to evaluate information without considering the external context. In other words, we reach conclusions about someone's competence without taking the time to understand the situation in which they achieved success or failure. Research shows that even highly trained professionals like hiring managers will promote candidates who perform better on easy tasks than those who performed less well in harder tasks. In this case, they see performance as an absolute characteristic without considering the external situation impacting this number. This has huge implications in candidate selection when two people may seem equally successful (e.g., sales revenue generated), but in reality, achieved those numbers under vastly different circumstances.

In all talent decision-making, bias leads us to draw the wrong conclusions about people and their likelihood of success.

Using our examples from above, let’s reflect on how the fundamental attribution bias may have led us astray:

  • The job hopper had a toxic manager and took a new job just to survive. Instead of being uncommitted, perhaps they were smart and resourceful.
  • The late candidate may have had genuine computer issues, ran into unexpected traffic, or stopped to help an old lady cross the road. Instead of unreliability, it could be bad luck or genuine altruism.
  • Concerning the social media stalking, the pictures came from her parent’s 50th-anniversary party, so perhaps not such a bad cultural fit after all.
  • And while that “thank you” note may seem like manners, some people just weren’t raised to know sending them is even a thing.

Bias, like the fundamental attribution error, can have devastating consequences to the quality and diversity of organizational talent. But there is good news. Bias can be erased.

  1. First, introduce objective talent assessments early in your decision-making processes. These types of tools don’t make snap judgments about people based on a single interaction or observation. At PerceptionPredict, we build predictive models based on the statistical relationship between many human characteristics and actual job performance. In that way, it is data that is informing decisions, not intuition.
  2. Second, find ways to formalize and structure those interviews. Ultimately, the best interviews are the ones that ask all candidates the same questions and more importantly for the fundamental attribution error, provides a standard way to score their responses. This means people will be rated based on their responses, not whether they are on-time, well-dressed, or quick to send a “thank you” note.
  3. Third, move the resume screen later in the hiring process. While it’s uncomfortable to do this, resumes tend to do more harm than good. While it’s true that experience and skill matter, it is best to review this information after you’ve used a scientific assessment to narrow your candidate pool based using objective measures. When used too early, those resumes are a nasty source of bias that can leave good people from getting a fair chance.

Want to understand how to erase bias in your organization. I’d love to help!

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