Cognitive Bias in Mediation: Fundamental Attribution Error

Massachusetts family mediationPeople tend to process information through some of the same filters over and over again. We call these filters “cognitive biases.” They are hardwired into our brains.

One particularly strong bias is called “fundamental attribution error.” When something good happens, we tend to overestimate the role of our own effort and intention. For instance, a store manager might say, “The changes I made helped us make more money last year,” even though it happened at the time the whole industry was expanding. On the other hand, when something bad happens, we are tempted to assign moral blame.  For instance, in a family mediation in which one party has experienced an injury or illness, the other party will often say, “I know she got hurt, but she really could be fine now if she worked harder at it.” In other words, people do have a subconscious tendency to congratulate themselves and blame the alleged victim.

Both sides of the fundamental attribution error coin come up often in business and family mediation. The mediator first has to decide if it is a barrier to resolution, creating significant difficulties on one or both sides, or if he can safely ignore it. If it is a barrier, he has many options.  He can engage in reality testing, although he should read the parties carefully to be ready to address any explosive pushback if emotions run high. He canhold up a mirror to the party most entrenched or float the fairness bubble.  His goal is to see if the parties’ perspective can be shifted so they can get past the issue.

For the parties, fundamental attribution error can be offensive. People do not like listening to boastful language that implicitly or explicitly denigrates their role in positive developments. At the same time, people do not like listening tolanguage thatimplicitly or explicitly blames them, often by laziness, for not escaping externally imposed constraints. As a party, one can spin the language to increase or decrease the other party’s perception of one’s fundamental attribution error to increase or decrease the other party’s annoyance.  Annoyance often stands in the way of resolution, but sometimes, if people are motivated by a desire to overcome the taint, it can be an impetus. The implicit message to which some parties respond is, “Prove to me you are capable.” Parties who are using the mediator to convey messages should be up front about their goals, since mediators sometimes filter out emotional content in order to keep the focus on the elements of resolution.

Fundamental attribution error: acknowledge its presence, then choose to use it or try to bypass it.