In 1967 two psychologists from Duke University, Edward Jones and Victor Harris, conducted a study to determine how we understand the causes of the actions of others. According to Jones and Harris, when we see another person acting or speaking in a certain way, we can choose to interpret that action or speech in one of two fundamental ways. We can interpret the action or speech as being a product of the intentions and character of the actor, or we can see them as being the product of the circumstances and/or environment in which the actor finds himself. In other words, we are constantly attributing each other’s actions to some mix of “internal” and “external” causal factors.
The results of Jones and Harris’s study showed that just about all of us believe that the actions of others are dictated almost entirely by “internal” factors. That is, no matter what the situation we believe that other people choose to behave the way that they do, instead of believing that circumstances in any way dictate their behavior. And here’s the really interesting part: even when a person’s circumstances or environment affect their actions in very obvious ways, we insist on believing that their behavior is freely chosen. This phenomenon is called a “cognitive bias,” a pattern of thinking that leads us to disregard facts in favor of the things that we want to believe are true. This particular cognitive bias is known as the “fundamental attribution error,” and it has been a pillar of psychological research for nearly half a century.
So, how do we see the fundamental attribution error manifest in special education? How many times have you heard one of the following phrases in an IEP or student success team meeting:
The truth is that we all see and hear these statements so often that we’ve forgotten exactly how much is wrong with them. The first mistake is that these characterizations describe problems without describing solutions. The second mistake is that each and every one of these statements falls subject to the fundamental attribution error. What might it look like if teachers hypothesized the solutions to these problems by incorporating environmental causes?
- “Ernesto can do the work, he’s just not trying hard enough.”
- “Lack of motivation is the biggest factor affecting Lupe’s progress toward IEP goals.”
- Or, everyone’s favorite within LAUSD: “Her deficits in auditory processing affect Meadow’s ability to complete English curriculum at grade level.”
- “Ernesto can do the work, we just need to find a way to build in periodic incentives in the curriculum to encourage him to meet grade level standards.”
- “Lupe’s lack of motivation in academic tasks seems to be caused by too much noise in the classroom, we need to find ways to minimize distractions during periods when she needs to concentrate.”
- “Individualized attention could limit the effects of Meadow’s auditory processing deficits by localizing her verbal instruction closer to her desk.”
The truth is that many disabilities recognized under the IDEA, like ADHD or several learning disabilities, have to do with a student’s ability to perceive, process, categorize, and utilize external stimuli. That means that the outward manifestations of a student’s disability, like inattention, noncompliance, and poor performance, are often heavily dependent on their educational environment, and yet parents constantly hear about how everything from sub-average academic performance to noncompliant behavior are dictated entirely by their student’s “internal” factors.
So when it feels like your student’s teachers and administrators seem to be “blaming” them for their behaviors and performance, and completely discounting environmental factors, know that you are dealing with the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is real, it has been a bedrock concept in psychology for nearly half a century, and there are currently no measures in the special education system to counteract it. We all know that disability is both an internal and external experience. When we treat it as exclusively one or the other, we miss the point; and how can we hope to meet ALL of a student’s needs when we only recognize HALF of their causes.