Katy Milkman: See if this sounds familiar to you.
Speaker 2: Oh, come on. Did you see what he just did there? He totally cut me off. Idiot. What a jerk.
Katy Milkman: OK, let's rewind. But this time we're riding along in the car that contains the jerk.
Speaker 3: Honey, this baby is coming now.
Speaker 4: I know. I'm trying to get … this guy won't let me in.
Speaker 3: We're going to miss the hospital exit. Just go, just go, just make your move already.
Speaker 2: Idiot.
Speaker 4: Sorry. Geez, buddy. Ease up. I can't help it.
Katy Milkman: If you're a driver, chances are that you've been in both situations. You've probably been cut off at some point, and you've probably needed to abruptly change lanes, maybe to avoid missing your exit in an emergency. And you've annoyed someone else in the process. Think about the way you perceive the behavior of the other driver, depending on whether it was you or them making the lane change. In this episode, we'll take a look at a key thing we often miss when we judge the behavior of others. You'll hear from a famous wrestler, who's been called both a villain and a hero. And I'll speak to renowned social psychologist Richard Nisbett about how incomplete information can result in consequential errors.
I'm Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving life-changing moments. And then we explore how they relate to the latest research in behavioral science. All to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.
Allen Sarven: One of the things was to stand on the top rope facing outwards toward the audience and back flip into the ring. But lay out and land almost like in a belly flop on your opponent. It was called a moon-salt.
Katy Milkman: This is Allen Sarven.
Allen Sarven: I'm a father of six, grandfather of six. I am the owner and CEO of OVW, Ohio Valley Wrestling.
Katy Milkman: Allen has been in the professional wrestling business for 40 years. He was best known as Al Snow in the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. One of his signature moves was called the Snowplow.
Allen Sarven: It's similar to a body slam. I would lift their hips directly up and I would hook their head and I would drop them on the upper part of the back. So it looked like I dropped them on their head or their neck and made it look almost like a pile-driver type of visual.
Katy Milkman: This type of show wrestling is physically demanding and can be quite dangerous, but it's all in support of a peculiar form of storytelling.
Allen Sarven: Professional wrestling: It's the art physical storytelling within the context of a competitive situation. And it is very much a synergistic performance. The audience is just as much part of your performance as you are. There is a very definitive exchange of energy that goes on between the audience and the performer if it's done correctly. In the ring, you're continuously evaluating what is happening, where you're at, how much time is left, should you speed up? Should you slow down? And you adjust accordingly to get the strongest emotional reaction that you possibly can upon the outcome.
Katy Milkman: Most people, and most wrestling fans, understand that the outcome of these matches is decided in advance.
Allen Sarven: We all know, and everyone has known for quite honestly decades, since 1920, that professional wrestling is predetermined. The myth that people just recently discovered this is absurd. That's like saying that everybody didn't know that Spider-Man wasn't a documentary.
Katy Milkman: For fans, the real thrill of professional wrestling comes from the intense physicality, the choreography, the surprise moments, and the story of the struggle between larger-than-life personalities. Those personalities are often divided into two camps. In pro wrestling they call them babyfaces and heels.
Allen Sarven: In any form of storytelling, you have an antagonist, and you have a protagonist. And even in wrestling, you do as well. But instead of the protagonist, we call them a babyface. And these are terms that originated in the carnival days back in the early 1900s. And the antagonist is a heel. And for a very long time, I was known as a heel in the professional wrestling business. The babyface's job, just like in any other form of storytelling is, in our vernacular, to get over with the audience, which means to make the audience live vicariously through the babyface, to identify with the protagonist and feel like when that protagonist succeeds the audience succeeds. And so my job as the antagonist, or as the heel, was to do everything in my power to make that audience want to be my opponent as much as possible.
So that if I did anything, I did one thing to my opponent, I just did it to the entire audience. And the way that I judged that was not just by whether or not they booed me. When I knew that I had really succeeded in captivating an audience and really capturing their emotion was when they took physical action. Were they standing on their feet? Were they trying to clap him on the back? Were they trying to shake his hand? My goal as the antagonist, as the heel, my goal is to get you to be so angry, so frustrated, feel so much injustice has been done, not to just the person that you're watching, but to you. Now I know I've really succeeded.
Katy Milkman: Naturally, Al recognizes the importance of the heel in a good story.
Allen Sarven: No story is any good without a great antagonist. Think of any story that you've ever read, and the antagonist doesn't even have to be a person. The antagonist could be a mountain that the protagonist has to climb. The antagonist could be a competition that you're wanting to cheer on and see the protagonist win. Ultimately, there is no good story without a good antagonist. And unfortunately, a little bit of advice for anyone who's listening, no matter how much you think you're the protagonist in life, there are people around you that you are the antagonist in some of their stories. Trust me.
Katy Milkman: While Al was just playing a role as the antagonist in wrestling matches, some fans took to judging Al as a person based on his behavior in the ring.
Allen Sarven: I've had several fans who assume that because they see me on a weekly basis, they know who I am as a real person and feel like they've developed to some degree or another a relationship with me that doesn't really exist. And they don't really know who I am.
Katy Milkman: One of Al's gimmicks was to act unhinged. He used to pretend to converse with a mannequin head.
Allen Sarven: And there are people that still to this day believe that I'm quite insane.
Katy Milkman: As you can tell from this interview, Al seems like a regular guy, at least when he's not flinging other giant wrestlers around. I want you to hold two images in your mind, the over-the-top mean wrestler and the regular guy as we hear about Al in another context.
Allen Sarven: My wife and I had traveled down to Florida to spend several days with my best friend and business partner and his wife. They have a vacation home down there. We had gotten down there, and a tropical storm had come in on Wednesday and we couldn't go to the beach. And I made the decision that we would stay on Thursday, because we had missed one day at the beach. And we thought, well, we'll stay the one extra day. We'll go back Friday. So we weren't even really meant to be there that day. The day before the tropical storm came in, and the winds were really heavy, and the sea was really rough, and basically you couldn't go out. It was pretty, pretty severe. But then the next day it was beautiful. Weather was just fantastic.
The only thing was the water was kind of rough. There was one area where on the beach, the lifeguard had cordoned off with cones, designating that in this particular stretch of water, they didn't want anybody in. Apparently in that area was where the riptide was very, very strong from the storm coming in the day before. I didn't know that it could be just localized like that, but everybody was outside of that cordoned-off area. Nobody had any issues. And I was standing out in the water and was probably about a football field maybe or so away from where it took place.
Katy Milkman: What took place was one of the most harrowing experiences of his life.
Allen Sarven: My wife was returning to the beach and was shutting down. And then I began to hear yelling, screaming, somebody screaming "help." And I looked over and it was a little boy. He was swimming frantically.
Katy Milkman: The boy had been swept into the cordoned-off part of the beach by the powerful riptide.
Allen Sarven: And as I was watching him, he was swimming as hard as he possibly could. It looked like somebody had tied a rope to his foot. It was literally dragging him out into the water. No matter how hard he paddled, no matter how hard he struggled, he was just being pulled inextricably out to sea. As I'm watching the little boy yelling and screaming for help, but I didn't see his parent.
I see the mother now, she's beginning to run down the beach and she's like, "Someone help my son! Someone help my son!" And I don't remember making a conscious decision. I just knew that I had to go get him. If I didn't go get him, he was going to die. So I took off kind of half swimming, half running through the water as fast as I could. I don't know how I crossed the distance as quick as I did. I guess adrenaline really must have kicked in, but I darted across as fast as I could. And he was at a point of no return. I felt like, "Oh, boy, if I miss him, that's it— nobody's going to be able to get him" because he's going even further out. And this current was getting even stronger 'cause I could feel it pulling me.
And as he went further out, he was getting faster and just going quicker. So I grabbed him by the wrist, pulled him to me and I just told him to hold onto me and a wave pulled us under, and I could feel the riptide pulling me. And it just for a brief moment, I thought maybe this is the way I'm going to go. And we broke out of the water. I was digging my feet into the sand. I had tried to hold him above water and started moving forward. And by this time the lifeguard had come out just far enough, and I made it enough distance to break away from where there was really any real danger, passed him off to her. And she took him on in to shore. And got up on the beach and collapsed. All of a sudden, it just hit me, and I dropped to my knees by our cooler that we had standing there and kind of had to use the handle to stand back up because all the adrenaline just went out of me.
Katy Milkman: Slowly, Al's exhaustion turned to relief and gratitude.
Allen Sarven: I'm just grateful that I was in the right place at the right time. And that it worked out well for both of us. It was funny. We were standing there on the beach, and the mom, she came and thanked me and hugged me, and the little boy thanked me. And then some people that were sitting behind us recognized me and then came over and spoke to me and everything like that. And then the word got out.
Katy Milkman: The bystanders shared the news of the rescue online, and soon the press came calling. Many media outlets described Al in heroic terms, but Al doesn't see it that way.
Allen Sarven: I don't consider myself a hero. I think that's ridiculous to even consider. I just did what I would feel anybody else would've done if they were in the same situation. You see somebody in need, and you do what you have to do to help them out.
Katy Milkman: Obviously, what Al did was very brave. He certainly deserves credit for quick thinking and selflessness and risking his own safety to save the young boy. Where the hero designation becomes tricky is that it endows the protagonist in this story with some special quality, some aspect of their personality that makes them exceptional. But as Al said, there are almost certainly lots of people who would've tried to do the same thing had they been in his shoes. When you see a child struggling and realize you could help, it's common to try to come to their aid.
Allen Sarven: It wasn't a matter of a conscious decision or, "Oh, well, I'm going to go save the day" or anything like that. It was just, "Let's go. I got to get him." If I don't get him, he's going to be gone. And it just so happened that I was in the right place at the right time.
Katy Milkman: The right place at the right time. It was a happy ending for the boy and his family and for Al.
Allen Sarven: We ended up meeting him at the pool, talked to him for a little bit there, and it was very nice. And then my wife had exchanged addresses to stay in touch, and earlier that day, apparently they bought a piece of art. It's like an angel. And he had bought it to keep in his room, and he asked his mom to send it to me because he considered me to be his angel.
Katy Milkman: Allen Sarven has been involved in professional wrestling for 40 years. Most notably as WWE wrestler Al Snow. He's currently the owner and CEO of Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, Kentucky.
I shared Al's story to illustrate a fascinating feature of the way we typically judge other people. We tend to observe their behavior and then assume what we're witnessing gives us insight into their inherent qualities, their disposition, their intelligence, their generosity, and so on. Rarely do we stop to consider what a large role their situation likely played in guiding their actions. You can see this clearly in Al's story. He often played the part of a villain, or heel, in the ring. And this led lots of wrestling fans to believe that he was truly mean or evil or unhinged, even though it was just an act. Later on, when Al found himself in the right place at the right time to save a life, he was lauded by the media as a hero. But Al felt he'd done what almost anyone in that same situation would've.
So why is it that we tend to ignore the situation when we judge a person harshly for a perceived character flaw or laud them for a perceived strength? Why do we overemphasize a person's motivations and underemphasize the context they're in? To pose the question differently, why do we trust actors who play doctors on television to sell us prescription drugs? And why do we infer the person who cut us off in their SUV was a jerk rather than racing to get to the hospital?
To answer these questions, I've invited the renowned social psychologist Richard Nisbett to speak with me about his work on the fundamental attribution error. Richard Nisbett is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and the author of many books, including most recently Thinking: A Memoir. Hi, Richard, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Richard Nisbett: Thank you.
Katy Milkman: So I want to start with a definition. I was just hoping you could define the fundamental attribution error. What is it exactly?
Richard Nisbett: The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to attribute causality to dispositions of the object or actor and to slight situational constraints, opportunities, et cetera. So basically, when you and I are having a conversation, I'm largely unaware of the broad range of stimuli to which you're responding. And if you seem very pleasant, I say, oh, well, geez, I'm sure a very pleasant person. But it's actually limited evidence, and I've ignored your situation, so that's the error.
Katy Milkman: Could you describe a favorite research study that demonstrates that this fundamental attribution error exists?
Richard Nisbett: Well, one of them is 2,500 years old. It's Aristotle's physics. Aristotle would tell you that a stone sinks when it drops into water because it has the property of gravity. But there's this problem of course, which is that if you drop a piece of wood in the water, it floats. No problem for Aristotle, that's because the wood has the property of levity. Now, of course, there's no such property, and gravity is not inherent in the object. It's inherent in the relationship between the object and something else, for example, earth.
Katy Milkman: OK. So you've given us an example of how the ancient Greeks might have made this mistake, but what about something more contemporary?
Richard Nisbett: We did an experiment quite a while ago when I was at Yale. We contacted students at Yale and said there are a number of visitors, well-heeled visitors, who are hoping to get their contributions to the university. And if you would be willing to show them around for a couple of hours, we could pay you, and I'm going to give you contemporary equivalents rather than the actual amounts we offered so it'll make sense. "We could pay you $10 an hour for a couple of hours work." Or to others we said, "We could pay you $30 an hour for that couple of hours work." Now some of them said yes, and some of them said no. But of course, they were substantially more likely to say yes for $30 an hour than for $10 an hour. Meanwhile, we had videotaped these interactions, and we showed them to people and asked them a few questions about what they had seen.
And then we asked, "How likely do you think it would be that the person you just saw would be willing to volunteer for the Red Cross, for a half day's work?" And people made these judgements, and they were almost completely unresponsive to the amount of money that was offered. If the woman said yes, and was offered $30, they were no more likely to assume that she would be a volunteer than if she had only been offered $10 and agreed to do it. And the same thing for women who turned it down. There was no response in their judgment to the fact that they had been offered a lot or offered a little. So that's a fairly spectacular one because the amount of money offered, of course, was a big influence on whether people volunteered or not.
Katy Milkman: That study is so fascinating. And it's so interesting that, of course, it's natural that we should expect people who said yes for $10 to be more generous than people who said yes for $30, right? And we should infer more about their likelihood of volunteering for the Red Cross. But what you're saying is there's just not a sensitivity to that. People attributed all to the person and not to their situation, which is a different amount of money on offer. When you see that they make this generous decision to spend time with donors.
Richard Nisbett: Great summary, thanks.
Katy Milkman: Such a really interesting study. Let's talk about another thing I'm really interested in, which is, what causes the fundamental attribution error? Why do we infer personality as the root cause of so much behavior that's actually determined by the situation?
Richard Nisbett: The object, which could be a stone, or it could be a person, but the object is very salient. There's a strong temptation to say it's something about the object, something about the person, that caused them to do that. The situation is often, I can't even see it, I mean, I don't know what kind of morning you had today. I don't know anyone that you spoke to before who might have told you something wonderful or something upsetting. I can't know that. So a lot of the situational factors that influence our behavior are simply not visible to the observer of the behavior. That's a big part of it.
But as our study that I just described shows, we can be awfully obtuse, even when it's kind of rubbed in our noses. I mean, this woman was paid a lot to do it and she volunteered. How much of a volunteerer do you think she is? And then people will say, "Oh, she's a big volunteerer." Name it—she'll volunteer for it. And they'll do that to the same extent if she was offered $10. So there really is something very deeply flawed about our ability to incorporate situational information into our judgment about why people do what they do.
Katy Milkman: Why does the fundamental attribution error matter? Why should we be concerned about this mistake that people make?
Richard Nisbett: We make snap judgements about people on a limited amount of information. And when that's the case, it's just automatic, we're going to make errors in our interaction with that person again. Because we've made too readily the fundamental attribution error, assuming that the reason for some particular behavior was a disposition of the person, the personality trait, or a skill or whatever, rather than a response to this specific situation where they observe the person.
Katy Milkman: So how did you originally get interested in this topic?
Richard Nisbett: Oh my goodness. It's quite interesting. I was working with Ned Jones. We wrote a paper on the actor and the observer, and a lot of what we said about the differences between the actor's explanation for his or her behavior and the observer's is that the actor is much more likely to refer to the situation when explaining his or her own behavior than when observing someone else's behavior, where they're more likely to make a dispositional inference. What I just said, just now, I said to Lee Ross, and Lee with no hesitation said, yeah, that's great, Dick, but it misses the larger point. Which is that everybody for everything makes dispositional inferences when they should be making situational inferences. And on the spot, he invented the fundamental attribution error concept, so that's where it came from.
Katy Milkman: That's a wonderful anecdote for the history of behavioral science. I'm glad to have that for the record. For your average listener who is listening to this show, hoping to become better at making decisions by understanding behavioral science a bit, what do you think their key takeaway should be from learning about this? Is there anything they should do or think about differently?
Richard Nisbett: Get more evidence. I mean, don't assume that a single encounter or a single anecdote about the person is terribly informative. Our error in making the fundamental attribution error is linked to another very serious error that we make constantly, which is not having enough information to really make a judgment. We don't fully understand the concept of the law of large numbers, which basically says in its simplest form, more evidence is better than less evidence. And it's somewhat more complicated form, the law of large numbers says the more variable the entity, the object, the kind of attribute for that object, the more variable it is, the more evidence you have to have.
Katy Milkman: So is there anything you do differently in your life as a result of understanding the fundamental attribution error and its importance?
Richard Nisbett: Yeah, there are lots of situations where I say, "Watch out for the fundamental attribution error." But I'm sorry to have to tell you that there are infinitely more where I know I make the error, and it's only later I say, "Oh, wow, good, I didn't have much evidence for that." Here's an example. There are two departments in the world—this is when I was studying this stuff on principle—did not interview people, because they're going to protect themselves from even a small amount of information that may sway their judgment. They make the judgment on the basis of the person's career, about what people say about the person, a huge amount of information in the folder. And they say we've got to protect ourselves because we'll surely respond too much to how the individual behaves. Now, the two departments are the University of Michigan's psychology department, which started having this policy of not interviewing 60 or 70 years ago. And slowly the University of Michigan psychology department became the best in the world. So that doesn't prove my point.
Katy Milkman: It's nice evidence, nonetheless.
Richard Nisbett: The other place that did it was the philosophy department at Princeton. And that was done because one of the philosophers there was married to a psychologist, who told him about the law of large numbers and about the interview illusion and so on. So they stopped interviewing people. And after a while it was the best philosophy department in the world. Again, that's not proof, but …
Katy Milkman: But very interesting. Richard, this has been such a fun conversation. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.
Richard Nisbett: Sure, I had fun.
Katy Milkman: Richard Nisbett is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Michigan. He's also the author of many books, including Thinking: A Memoir. I have links to the book and some of his research on the fundamental attribution error in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
People tend to fall victim to the fundamental attribution error because the behavior we observe is so visceral and salient, and the context around that behavior is opaque at best and usually hidden. Many other decision-making errors also arise because we focus on visceral, salient information. Take Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, where the stories grabbing attention seem to involve people getting rich practically overnight. Is there context you might be missing? Listen to a recent episode of the Financial Decoder podcast titled "Should You Invest in Cryptocurrency?" to learn more about the unique risks and other attributes of crypto. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.
If you've ever taken a class on social psychology, you've almost certainly heard about the fundamental attribution error before. But it's hard to fully internalize the lesson that most people's actions are more a product of their situation than you assume. The urge is so strong to infer "She's really nice," when you see someone being friendly, or "He's such a jerk," when you watch a nasty interaction. Of course, some behaviors, good and bad, are driven by our traits, but on balance nearly as many are driven by our circumstances.
The expression "don't shoot the messenger" is so apt because we tend to attribute blame to a person just for being assigned to deliver bad news. The fundamental attribution error appears in the business world as well. We often give excessive credit to management and CEOs of successful companies. Of course, CEOs' decisions do make a difference, but we tend to focus our attention there while neglecting favorable economic conditions. And of course the same applies when a business fails. Poor economic conditions tend to be underappreciated relative to the skills of leaders or lack thereof in driving bad outcomes. Or consider investing—suppose you bought a stock because you liked its prospects for a specific reason. If it goes up, you'll probably assume your skills as an investor are the reason. But if it goes down, it must be bad luck. Judging the same outcomes faced by another investor, you'd be more likely to attribute the bad performance to a lack of skill than luck. What you see as due to outside circumstances like chance versus skill often depends on your perspective.
You've been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you've enjoyed the show, we'd be really grateful if you'd leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter.
Next time you'll hear about an election influenced by a game of rugby, and I'll speak with finance professor Alex Edmans about what national sentiment can tell us about the stock market. I'm Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.