The Universe of Psychology

Chapter 2: The Individual


The Fundamental Attribution Error

It is Monday morning and you are late for work. The street is empty and nobody is looking - so you cross the street, ignoring the red light. On the elevator you meet your coworker. He still has toothpaste in the corners of his mouth. What a slag!

The fundamental attribution error suggests that our evaluation of actions is biased: While we explain our own behaviour in situational terms, we consider the behaviour of others to be the result of dispositional features. While our lateness to work was due to traffic, our co-worker is just lazy. While we forgot the birthday of a friend because we were on vacation, everyone else is just a bad person.

The group-serving bias extends this model to in- and outgroups: If friends, family or co-workers fail, we attribute this failure to external events, if they succeed, it is due to their personal qualities. Outgroups, on the other hand, i.e. another clique or the opponent in a football match, are judged the other way around. Failure is due to disposition, success the mere result of a situational advantage.


You walk down the narrow passage of a moroccan bazar. You smell the spices, the smoke. There, on a table with a ruby-red cloth, lies the object of your desire, an ancient artefact that tells the tales of the past.
How much, you ask. 200, he says. You have no idea what it’s worth, but 200 seems a lot. No way, you answer. 150! He pauses. 180, he says. 160, you respond. He accepts. You smile. You are a master of bargain.
And also a casualty of anchoring.

The anchoring heuristic is well known amongst car salesmen and advertising experts. It describes the insufficient adjustment from a prior given value, such as the price of a car. The initial price tag for the car may be 15.000€. The salesman then negotiates with the customer until an agreement is reached for 13.000€. Actually, the car is worth only 10.000€. But the customer, unaware of the exact price, is influenced by the anchor - the initial price tag - and thus assumes it to be worth more than it actually is.

Anchors decrease our ability to adjust from these initial values. We might knock down the price a bit, but not as much as we would have without that initial offer.
The effect works for all kinds of values. Every time we are in need for an estimate, we take any hint we can get, even if it comes from a source that is most likely biased. The only antidote is knowing the actual value.







Why do you draw? Or knit? Or cook? Why do pay your bills, brush your teeth, or eat broccoli?
Motivation has many facets. Two primary motives are extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation lies in the pursuit of reward or the avoidance of punishment. It means working harder to get a raise, doing homework to pass a class, working out to look great. Our daily life is filled with extrinsic motivation. Whether it’s getting up early, bringing out the garbage or ironing shirts, the motivation is boiled down to a gain/lose-dichotomy.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It is the motivation to do things for their own sake. It is the backbone of personal interests, goals and ambitions. And it is difficult to reach. While eating chocolate may be personally rewarding, it is much harder to evoke intrinsic motivation in a workout.

There is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation per se. The promise of rewards can introduce interest in previously uncharted territories. However, the introduction of rewards also establishes a dependency on such and further rewards are needed or the motivation diminishes. This can even affect intrinsic motivation: Both forms of motivation are mutually exclusive, thus a shift towards one inevitably diminishes the other.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance describes a state in which attitudes and/or behaviour are in contradiction to each other. What sounds confusing at first is actually the very reason for why you still smoke despite knowing that it’s bad for you, for why you have a good reason not to eat less fast food and for why you never liked your ex girlfriend anyway.

A dissonance – the smoking habit that is pleasurable on the one hand but on the other hand might kill you – leads to anxiety and negative feelings.
A way to alleviate these feelings would be to change the behaviour – and quit smoking. But maybe you don’t want to change your behaviour. Or maybe you can’t. Another way to relieve yourself from the dissonance is thus to change the discrepancy itself. Behaviours and attitudes can be rationalised or trivialised. It’s not that bad after all. You’re still eating vegetables, after all! There are worse things out there, after all!




The Just World Hypothesis

We have an inherent need for order and predictability. We need to be able to explain the world around us and the actions that take place in our life and that of others. We need to know that everything happens for a reason.

Sometimes, however, bad things happen. Things that are hard to explain and even less so can be justified by our concept of how the world works. The just world hypothesis describes the bias that can occur in these situations. We assume that every person gets what they deserve. And if something bad happens, then it is because that person deserved it.
This bias has tremendous consequences. An accident, an assault, anything that even outsiders can hardly bear, is explained by presumptions and thus diminished. We assume that the driver must have been drunk, that the guy must have provoked it, or that it was not as bad as it sounds. We diminish what happened or even blame the victim for our own sake. This leaves us with a still intact world. But it may shatter the world of others.