Whose are these tracks, and where do they go? (Courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/akahodag/)

Attribution bias and why I ran the marathon

The Gruffalo is the story of a mouse who tells each predator it crosses about a nearby Gruffalo, an imaginary creature whose preferred dish is conveniently a cooked version of the said predator. When the Gruffalo happens to be real and its favorite dish is ironically grilled mouse, the mouse parades it through the woods to meet with all the predators. These are afraid of the Gruffalo and flee, to avoid being cooked into a crumble. The Gruffalo sees that, concludes that the mouse is terrible, and should be fled from. Therefore flees from it.

The Gruffalo’s reaction is very human, it is an effect of attribution bias: we tend to infer causal chains too easily.

As a species it is a fairly good evolutionary advantage. Gru drank from the pond and died from atrocious diarrhea, therefore the pond is doomed. Krek and Pruk ate a pig that was left there for too long and died, so pig is doomed. Victor crossed the street in front of the bus and was separated into several juicy limbs, therefore buses should be banned.

The thing is, this is something that is hardwired in our brains, and as this, it’s hard to avoid unless you’re conscious of it. It has multiple effects, like confirmation bias (looking for things confirming your hypothesis rather than analyzing stuff objectively), but the one interesting me today is positivity / negativity effect: depending on our appreciation of the subject, we tend to reduce / augment the role that the situation played in the outcome.

It is something very useful to cope with our daily lives events without becoming suicidal or depressive. If you get a bad grade, it’s the fault of the test or the teacher. If you don’t get the promotion, it’s that idiotic boss. If you get it, it’s only well deserved. If this moronic guy from accounting does not say hi when crossing you, it’s because he has no manner (when it could certainly be that he’s stressed or late). If you deliver something on time, it’s mainly because you’re good.

That thing is affecting our judgement about everything

If a company is doing well, it’s because its CEO is very smart, certainly not because the whole company is actually good. Or if we don’t like the CEO, it’s because the context is very good and the team is doing everything. If the company does not do well and we like the CEO, then it’s probably because the other executives or the operational team are bad. If the product works on the market, that’s because the product is so good. Or if you work in sales, because sales effort is so efficient. Or if you work in marketing, because that whole endeavor is so well advertised.

And same goes with politics. If <insert country name>’s market is so bad, is it because <current party in power> are horrible, or because the market has been so bad at worldwide scale lately? Ask any partisan of both power and opposition and try to guess their answer.

The problem is, most the judgements we make are affected by that bias. And it is very hard to prove otherwise, cause most of the time life is not in a scientific setup. You get multiple variables moving at the same time, without a control group, so who can tell which variable affected the outcome positively, or even what combination worked. You can’t run the exact same company or country in the exact same context twice with only one change, so you can’t deduct what did work and what did not. And yet you do deduct.

Yes, you need to learn things, and there are ways to approximate an answer. A-B testing. Small iterations and fast feedback. Large sample sets. But yet, as long as history only moves forward, you can’t really be scientific about it, and you won’t be sure. And these methods only work when you plan to validate or study something in the future. When it comes to analyzing something that happened, you’re alone with trying to rationalize. On simple events (a regression in your code, a reduction in time-to-market) you can use root-cause analyzes methods (5 whys for example). For more complex setups, it is much more complex.

If Apple succeeded like they did, it certainly is thanks to Steve Jobs, right? How much did he actually contribute to the iPhone? How big a role the fact that Mac is Mac played? If Steve Ballmer had been in his place would it have succeeded the same? Would it be dead? Would it be better? Had the market not responded to the iPad, would we have attributed the failure to Jobs? If we replaced a few of his product guys, would Apple be the same? What role plays Cook in Apple’s success today, is it only Jobs’ legacy? What if Jobs had been working at Citrix, would we know of him? Do you think a pro-Mac would give answers opposite to an anti Mac? Does the fact that there are such things as pro and anti Mac not prove that it is a highly subjective thing to begin with?

What about Harry Potter. Is the book that good, is J. K. Rowling a genius, or is it just the fact that Harry Potter is Harry Potter*? What about The Lord of the Ring?

The simple answer is that we don’t have a machine to run these control tests in a parallel time line, we just can’t say for sure. It is very, very easy to post rationalize in hindsight and distribute good points, but how much of that rationalization is justified, attribution bias tells us it’s probably not as much as we think. Could be, could not be, could be a little bit of both or that stars aligned. We’ll never know.

But hey, once you know that bias you can act on it, right?

Yes, and it’s a bummer at a personal level. You’ll start doubting every achievement. Which is good, because it helps you judge more deeply what your impact actually is. But which is bad, because you can never really be sure of what you really bring to the table. The more people you interact with, the less you can tell how much of the outcome is yours. Surely it is easier to take the praise. But being honest to yourself is better if you want to grow, no?

And that is why running distances is different. Any more complex sport brings some situational variables. Team sports — the other team members could be the reason why you seem good. Confrontational sport — the opponents could be bad in this day, or not adapting to your one particular way of doing things. But running the distance, with only a timer against you, that is very mechanical, with no situational side effect possible. This is a thing that is universally accepted as hard to do. Once you ran 42.2km, you ran them. There is no commenting possible, no doubting that something particular helped you majorly in doing it. You actually achieved something on your very own that nobody, especially yourself, can remove from you. That is a feeling worth millions. And that is why I ran it twice.

It is also a very boring and painful experience, so I did not repeat it more.

If you decide to act against your bias,

here are a few things I find useful. They all are pretty much conscious actions so it’s hard to get with. But you can teach your own little inside voice to give you hints :

  • Don’t give up on pride or grief, but attribute them to the correct level. When company succeeds, it’s the company’s success. When your team succeeds, it’s your team’s success. When you play the guitar so well, or draw so well, or ride a horse so well, it’s because you practiced it so much and tried to evolve. Be proud of it.
  • Acknowledge situational factors, and teach your inside voice to tell you: you don’t know that for sure when you’re a judgmental prick. If Rick is rude to you, it’s maybe also because he’s stressed and pressured and has a badly responding character, not just because he’s a prick. If Ned is giving you bad deliverables, he might not have enough coaching, or your needs may not be clear enough on your own expectations.
  • Evaluate actions instead of outcomes: when Gus is thinking so much out of the box and stays on a Friday night, he may be brilliant and dedicated. When he delivers a critical patch, he may just have been helped correctly or put at the correct position.
  • Evaluate outcomes you are sure of (they are usually local and small): my wife did like Harry Potter and I somehow enjoyed the Lord of the Ring. At least for us it makes these good books. If you build a software that is working well, you can be proud of it. If you had a brilliant idea for an architecture that works well, you can be proud of that idea. Just recognize that it’s more or less decoupled from the outcome of it, whether it’s the success of the book, the popularity of your software, or the efficiency of the architecture.
  • Sometimes leave your biases to go wild. It is a good coping mechanism to tell yourself a story where you’re the hero and they’re the villains. Just make sure to learn what is to learn there, objectively.

It is hard to be hard on you, and easy to be easy on you. Maybe the good thing to do is level these two a bit.

* Example taken out of Everything is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts, excellent read.
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