Fundamental Attribution Error

We are predisposed to see other people as having enduring characteristics that cause them to behave in predictable ways, and to interpret samples of behavior—even hopelessly inadequate samples—as clues to their characteristics. Our theory of human nature leads us to expect that people will be consistent…
The predisposition to attribute someone’s behavior to something within them that’s relatively stable and enduring—something that nowadays is called personality and that used to be called character—actually causes us to make errors in prediction; we expect people to be more consistent than they really are.

Harris, J. R. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Definition of fundamental attribution error from Judith Rich Harris.

Bike Theft and Fundamental Attribution Error

The potential fallacy of fundamental attribution error should warn us away from inventing motives to explain why other people use cable locks or other less-than-perfect locking techniques. Developing high-tech methods to discern GOOD bicycle securers from BAD bicycle securers doesn’t help make those securers’ motives clear, whatever those motives might be. I am certainly not a priori convinced that there is a huge demand for a more didactic approach to providing advice on how to lock up your bicycle, and I refuse to accept the observation that lots of bicyclists use cable locks as support for the argument that everyone should register their bike and lock it right.

Since I wrote this first paragraph, I actually went ahead and purchased a cable lock. It cost less than $10, and was rated “1,” the least secure rating in the marketer’s system. I was out of town for school, and so I used it once or twice when leaving the bicycle outside a store for more than 10 minutes. Most of the time I would fold up my bike and take it with me, to class (where I left it folded in the back of the classroom) and to the grocery store (where I folded it up and put it in the cart, so as to take up space and keep me from buying too much food to carry home).

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t make me a bad person. When I travel for business or school, I like to use the bicycle as effectively as I can to get around, which means bicycling right to the front door and not hunting around for a bicycle rack that could be several dozen meters away from the door. Part of my effectiveness at bicycle operation is knowing when it’s necessary to lock up, and when it’s not. Even in New York City, when I duck into the newsstand every morning, I don’t lock my bike up. I just leave it outside, IN THE GHETTO practically, for 30 seconds while I go in and get my newspaper. Of course my bicycle could be stolen. But who is out there on the corner at six a.m., looking for a bicycle to steal?

Reading about decent-hearted people who have gotten wound around the axle of bicycle security makes me sad. At the worst, I see it as another example of in-group policing, where members of a small group come up with elaborate justifications for why other people cannot join, everything from the wrong style of handlebars to the wrong kind of lock. Secondly, they ignore how locking up one’s bicycle is a time-waster on the level of visits to the ATM machine–count up all those five-minute intervals spent either crouched over a staple rack or hunched in front of a bank machine, and pretty soon an entire week of life has vanished into the breeze.

Thirdly, judging the quality of all lock-up jobs by a single standard making the assumption that everyone in the same area has the same requirements. It’s weird that the same people who extol the flexibility of the bicycle as a transportation tool are so rigid when it comes to securing that bicycle. And lastly, if bicycle advocates can call for society to resolve the issue of traffic violence in bicyclists’ favor, why can they not also suggest some way to diminish the need to carry around 20 lbs. of locks and chains?

Interviewing the Elves

Figuring out why people who choose not to do something don’t in fact do it is like attempting to interview the elves who live inside your refrigerator but come out only when the light is off. People already working for a company might tell you what makes them unhappy. But these complaints won’t necessarily pinpoint the factors that keep women and minorities away from studying computer science in the first place.

Eileen Pollack, “What Really Keeps Women Out Of Tech,” New York Times, Sunday Review, page 3, 10/11/2015

Pollack’s metaphor is a trailer-load of apt when applied to the perennial question of bicycle advocates, “How do we get more people in the saddle?” One problem I see advocates having is that their own good fortune (or commodious circumstances) blinds them to the struggles that people at present considering whether to ride a bike actually face. This is an error that I have previously noted and categorized as a kind of fundamental attribution error, but I think it’s actually deeper than that. I see fundamental attribution error when I see bicycle advocates dismiss other people’s apparent reasons for not riding a bicycle as laziness or unfamiliarity. But the error that Pollack identifies is made on a different level.

Simply put, someone already bicycling sees his or her perceived choke points and difficulties as pervasive. The best example of this is the missing Second Avenue bike lane. Between 59th St and 34th St, there is no Second Avenue bike lane; there are signs along the leftmost traffic lane that say, “Bicyclists May Take Full Lane,” but not green paint or even a reserved door-zone lane. Commenters, some of whom are actual real-life bicycle advocates, are complaining on Streetsblog all the time about this, even hijacking posts about bike lanes in other parts of the city to do so. “Why are the authorities painting these subpar bike lanes in Washington Heights when the Second Avenue bike lane is still missing,” for instance.

From a wide-angle perspective, it’s clear that a New Yorker’s decision whether to bike or not to bike on any day is probably very little influenced by those 25 blocks without a bike lane. Plenty of people, after all, are not bicycling into midtown Manhattan at all, let alone the East Side. Here’s where Pollack’s insight comes in. While we can fairly easily attribute ridership to the presence of a bike lane on a certain street, it is more difficult to attribute the lack of ridership in the city overall to the absence of a bike lane on a certain street. The Second Avenue advocates’ argument is that better bicycle infrastructure on those 25 blocks will have some kind of domino effect, the riders irresistibly drawn by the lane’s presence channeling like a spring tide along all other bicycle infrastructure in Manhattan, thus by safety-in-numbers creating more and more bicyclists until all 8.3 million of us New Yorkers are hastening to and fro on two wheels.

This argument blithely assumes that there are no other constraints on bicycling in midtown, that nobody is hunting in vain for a bike share bicycle, or unable to find a safe place to park, or obliged to leave work after dark (or leave home before dawn). It recalls the old chestnut, the reserve army of bicyclists, in this case waiting in their midtown offices with padded shorts on for the Second Avenue bike lane to be opened.

I fully agree that the lack of the Second Avenue bike lane does make bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown more hairy and fretful than it needs to be. But this effect is only noticeable if you are already bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown (like, I expect, most of the advocates). Bicycling advocates have already worked through all the other difficult aspects of commuting by bicycle (finding the parking space, packing the clean shirt) and the implementation of the full Second Avenue bike lane is the one thing that would make their commute easier. Pollack’s insight is that the one thing for the advocate is likely not the one thing for someone ready to get in the saddle.



Despairing season for riding a bicycle

Across so many different domains of our lives, private and public, this dynamic seems to hold. We say we want something, often something very noble and admirable, but in reality we are not prepared to pay the costs required to obtain the thing we say we want. We are not prepared to be inconvenienced. We are not prepared to reorder our lives. We may genuinely desire that noble, admirable thing, whatever it may be; but we want some other, less noble thing more.

The above quote from The Frailest Thing blog sounds quite illuminating as a reason for why people don’t get in the saddle and ride. I picked the quote with the notion of arguing that well intentioned folks value the concept of riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, but they are not prepared for the inconvenience. I even went to the trouble of compiling a 10-point list of how my bicycle commute was so pitilessly inconvenient and frustrating, without even mentioning the possibility of being killed or maimed by errant automobiles. That was to buttress my argument that people had good reason for not getting on their bicycle and riding, and for preferring to use their motor vehicles.

But upon reflection, that kind of post is not what this week deserves. Since making that list, I was diagnosed with pinkeye and stayed home for most of three days. As a person therefore who is today recovering from both conjunctivitis and my umpteenth upper respiratory infection of the season, I am intrigued by the concept of a vehicle that shelters you from the elements during the journey.  How about  a “health wagon,” with a roof, a heater, and adjustable windows to permit ventilation? Now sit that atop an internal combustion engine that could handle the weight of the health wagon, and navigate along a network of speedy roads, and I think it’s an idea that could really be popular.

So if I declare, “I can’t ride on Monday,” it’s not because I because I am looking for excuses to hide out in my (notional) health wagon, it’s because I am truly afraid that I will never get well if I keep riding my bicycle.

Ultimately as a gesture of respect and empathy we have to take people’s decisions to get in their cars as genuinely reasoned and worthy of acknowledgement. Advocates like me are often unable to do this, partly because of fundamental attribution error, partly because our own enthusiasm blinds us to the limits of our transportation mode choice.



Poor People and Bicycling

Poor people don’t bike, according to this this Citylab article from earlier this year. Why not?

Most obviously, for the same reasons as rich people. It would be good if researchers (and commenters, of course) could avoid the fundamental attribution error, where rich people like the commenter describe themselves as au fait with the current options of transport, but describe poor people as hostage to poor information about bicycle options or commute time.

Degradation of the built environment. The streets and roads in poor neighborhoods have been redesigned over years to make them less useful for pedestrians and bicyclists and more useful for cars. See this Invisible Cyclist blog post, about how bike-share programs were never designed with equity or social justice in mind, for more details on how exactly this works.

Poor people’s jobs are further away. Rich people have the means to be able to move closer to where they work, taking on one-time costs of moving as well as more expensive costs for groceries, day care and entertainment. Poor people working for low wages can’t afford to shift their residence to somewhere nearer, and they also may not be willing to move for a less secure, less desirable job. In addition, poor people are more dependent on others who may not be able to move. What looks like a person’s quixotic decision to stay in one place far away from a low-paying job may be a calculated decision that takes advantage of relatives, low cost day care, or a partner or spouse’s opportunities.