Fundamental Attribution Error on Parade in Massachusetts

The Boston-area commuter rail system adapts the Japanese idea of trains that run every 1-2 minutes to American standards of efficiency. I.e., the trains run every 1-2 hours. A group of locals were having coffee at our town’s sole breakfast venue when we fell into a conversation with a woman from another town who had missed her train to Boston and was thus stuck waiting for 1.5 hours.

She was 53 years old, never married, and has just moved in with a 60-year-old man. He had 18- and 19-year-old children from a marriage that ended when the wife sued him under Massachusetts family law. An MIT Class of 1960 member cautioned her not to get married to her moderate-income boyfriend. Given her good career and relatively young age, she would be a prime target for a divorce-and-alimony lawsuit from this guy in the sunset of his career. She responded that both the boyfriend and everyone other divorced person that she knew in Massachusetts and New York (where she’d previously lived) had endured years of litigation with legal fees typically exceeding the cost of sending all of the children of the marriage through college. “I don’t understand why people who aren’t happy being married can’t just walk away with what they had earned,” our never-married newcomer said, “Why do they have to try to make money off their kids or their ex? One guy in New York had been cheating on his wife for three years and lying to her. Then he tried to get a share of her pension in the divorce. It took her 20 years to recover from that.”

Her model of the world was that people were fundamentally good and loving and considered their children’s welfare more important than getting maximum cash. But she had observed that all of the divorce plaintiffs with children whom she’d known were determined to get the last possible dollar for themselves out of their respective defendants, even if the result was a lot less total cash for the children (due to the legal fees and other transaction costs). How to account for the apparent discrepancy? “It is all the fault of the lawyers,” she said. “None of these people were that greedy until they hired a lawyer.”

I think this is a great example of the Fundamental attribution error, which research psychologists have shown is more prevalent among Americans than, e.g., people in India. From Wikipedia:

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior.

She found it easy to believe in the evil character of all of the lawyers who had represented all of the divorce plaintiffs she knew about. She did not consider “external factors,” such as a legislative environment setting up a winner-take-all system for divorce litigants.


  • Divorce Litigation chapter (“Both attorneys are giving accurate estimates based on what they’ve heard from their respective potential clients. These irreconcilable expectations quickly turn into feelings of entitlement. People naturally get upset when they aren’t getting something to which they feel entitled. … Part of the reason that divorce litigation is so intense is what tends to happen at parties’ first meetings with attorneys. “A lawsuit never looks better than the day you file it,” one litigator told us. By definition the attorney who is interviewing only one spouse at the inception of a lawsuit hasn’t heard any of the other side’s facts. The result is that each litigant develops an expectation regarding the divorce lawsuit that is an unlikely best-case outcome.”)

1 Comment

  1. negativez

    May 18, 2017 @ 3:46 pm


    I disagree that this is a great example of the FA Error as presented because you can view the lawyers as the external factors acting on the friends and the quote puts the lawyers “at fault” but doesn’t specifically call out the lawyers’ internal traits (i.e. they are evil). It’s also not established that the lawyers are actually standing on the moral high ground and thus that the speaker is making an error at all. If their defense of advocating greedy tactics to the litigants is that they are acting in the best interests of the client then I’d point out that we’re having this whole conversation because we consider the result to be not in those best interests and that a completely moral lawyer would advise their clients of the probability of this outcome (i.e. that the winner parent wins much less than their children lose). Ironically, if the lawyer did so and their client proceeds anyway, then it really is FA error, but in that the erroneous assumption is that the plaintiff is good, not that the lawyer is evil.

    FA Error certainly can be in play here, but it’s not a _great_ example.

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