Friends, for those of you working in education, I hope that you are taking care of yourselves. Now that we have been dealing with Covid-19 for a year and a half, the extraordinary lengths to which educators are going to help their students of all ages is no longer news, but it is remarkable nonetheless. My dad brought to my attention that October 5 is World Teachers’ Day—remember, if you can read this, thank a teacher.
This Coaching Letter is about how the situation we are in influences our behaviors, and that in many if not most cases, the situation is a better predictor of behavior than personal traits such as honesty or laziness.
I’ve been reading The Person and the Situation, by Ross and Nisbett, which goes into detail about the idea that we tend to assign causality to the person when actually the situation has more explanatory power. This book belongs in the category of Books I Wish I’d Known About 20 Years Ago. I only discovered it because I read the obituary of Lee Ross in the New York Times. Here are some frequently used examples of what is known as fundamental attribution error—when we attribute cause to personal characteristics, but actually the situation is more important:
- Someone passes me on the freeway doing 90 miles an hour and I think the person is a speed-crazed idiot, but actually they just got a phone call that their father had a heart attack and they are rushing to the hospital;
- A person refuses to speak during a meeting and their boss mentally labels them as difficult or negative, but actually everyone in the room knows that if the person has something negative to say that the boss will get angry, and nobody wants that;
- A colleague is often late to meetings, and you conclude that they are either lazy or disrespectful, but actually the grandparent who used to baby-sit for the colleague’s children in their home moved to another city, so now the colleague has to drive the children to daycare across town before coming to work.
The classic demonstration study is of seminary students who were told to prepare a sermon on the Good Samaritan and then told to go to a building across campus to give the sermon. And they were given different time constraints—some were told they were late, some were told they were on time, and some were told they had plenty of time. And another part of the simulation was engineered: there was a man on the ground that the students had to walk past. And of course, the real point of the study was to record whether they stopped to help or not; in other words, the unsubtle test was whether Christians about to give a talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan would take the opportunity to be an actual Good Samaritan. Would you be surprised to know that most of them failed to stop and offer aid to the man? And the more time pressure that the students were under, the less likely they were to stop and help, independent of the results of the personality tests that were administered before the instruction to give the sermon, thereby demonstrating that situation is more powerful than personality in explaining or determining behavior.
Here is how Ross and Nisbett frame the conclusion of the Good Samaritan study: “the type of information about personality that most laypeople would want to have before making a prediction would prove to be of little value. A half century of research has taught us that in this situation, and in most other novel situations, one cannot predict with any accuracy how particular people will respond. At least one cannot do so using information about an individual’s personal dispositions or even about that individual’s past behavior. Even scientists who are most concerned with assessing individual differences in personality would concede that our ability to predict how particular people will respond in particular situations is very limited. This ‘predictability ceiling’ is typically reflected in a maximum statistical correlation of .30 between measured individual differences on a given trait dimension and behavior in a novel situation that plausibly tests that dimension.”
Likewise, “Pick a generic situation; then identify and manipulate a situational or contextual variable that intuition or past research leads you to believe will make a difference… and see what happens. Sometimes, of course, you will be wrong and your ‘manipulation’ won’t work. But often the situational variable makes quite a bit of difference. Occasionally, in fact, it makes nearly all the difference, and information about traits and individual teachers that other people thought all-important proves all but trivial.”
Reading this was for me one of those lightbulb moments, and all sorts of situations came to mind. There was, for example, the time I visited three 5th-grade classrooms in Los Altos, CA where you couldn’t buy a house for less than $2 million anywhere near the school. And the teaching was terrible—couldn’t figure out what the learning objective was, meandering discussion during which one student talked about visiting Paris with her parents and another about a family trip to Turkey. Those students knew a lot because of their family resources, not because of the instruction. The situation in which those teachers found themselves made them look a lot better than they were.
So now I am totally primed to notice instances when we describe what’s going on in terms of the person rather than the situation. There is this article in the New Yorker about white collar criminals, and how circumstances seem to enable the crimes that these people commit—the sense that these crimes are “victimless”, for example—and over-ride the criminals’ sense of themselves as honest, decent citizens. And this article, also in the New Yorker, about non-alcoholic versions of beer, wine and spirits, which talks about the power of social situations to overcome to the sober intentions of recovering alcoholics. And the beginning of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers, in which he analyzed the encounter between Sandra Bland and a police officer in terms of the situation, and how it unfolded; Malcolm Gladwell wrote a blurb for the back of The Person and the Situation: “All of my books have been, in some sense, intellectual godchildren of The Person and the Situation.”
Before I read The Person and the Situation I knew about the fundamental attribution error, and I knew that we tend to apply it to others but not to ourselves—we ascribe others’ actions to their personalities (she is lazy/resistant/incompetent/a poor listener), although we attribute our own actions to the situation we are in (the time constraints were ridiculous/the culture just wouldn’t support that change/my training didn’t prepare me for this/there was so much going on that I couldn’t focus on what he was saying)—check out this corny YouTube video on the topic. This Harvard Business School post calls fundamental attribution error “the most important and most troubling cognitive bias that professionals are subject to”. And I had thought about it as just another cognitive bias, of which there are hundreds (I keep the Cognitive Bias Codex near my desk). But of course, each of these biases has a research history behind it (I can recommend Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving and Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project for the stories behind the academic findings, and the book Nudge, by Sunstein and Thaler, as the first popular book on cognitive biases, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as the most definitive, maybe?). I just hadn’t realized that fundamental attribution error is only one aspect of attribution theory, and that it belongs to sociology as much as psychology.
All this has made me think differently about some of the big ideas we talk about. For example, in the coaching workshops Kerry and I have been leading this fall, we’ve been asking participants to consider the conditions in which coaching is taking place. And of course, the fundamental attribution error comes into play; it’s easy to think about teachers, or coaches, as good or bad, and to not pay enough attention to the context in which they operate. The corollary of this is that, given how important conditions are, leaders should probably be thinking more about those conditions and how they can influence them. Because leaders are at risk of running afoul of both sides of fundamental attribution error: if they assume, for example, that a teacher’s poor performance is explained by their skill or will rather than the conditions in which they are teaching, then they may pursue an ineffective course of action that sees the teacher as a problem to be fixed, while also failing to pursue a more effective plan that would involve taking responsibility for the teaching conditions and doing something about them. Because of this newly awoken awareness of the importance of situation, we are spending more time talking about creating the conditions for coaching in our coaching workshops and in supporting districts in creating coaching models. Because much of what makes coaching successful (or not) has nothing to do with the coach. You might read an ASCD Express article that Sarah Woulfin and I wrote on that topic.
Just a couple of other things. This year the Center has created a community of practice for district equity leaders. Here is the flyer. And the Acceleration Convening for District Leaders on October 28 is an opportunity for superintendents, assistant superintendents, and directors of teaching and learning to learn from each other what they have been working on and what has been successful—I’m asking for volunteers to help me plan that, so let me know if you are interested. We’ve also been doing a lot of work on coaching, and on task design, and we’re writing another book… I think we’re crazy. Oh, and I finally mastered Google Forms, so if you’ve got a minute, I would appreciate some feedback on the Coaching Letter!
Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC