Fundamental Attribution Error

February 9, 2011

Another way of characterizing the Fundamental Attribution Error is the failure to think, “There but for the grace of God go I” when you read a story like this one, about the “exploitation” of laborers at contractors hired by US Embassies in the Persian Gulf countries. According to the report, contractors have been confiscating workers’ passports, providing them with extremely meager living conditions, requiring them to pay large up-front fees to obtain jobs (some large fraction of a year’s salary), and failing to inform them about the vacation time to which they are entitled. The people responsible for these kinds of abuses are the hiring managers for these contractors.

“Well, I would never behave like that,” you say.

Good for you, Mr. Nice Guy. Give yourself a pat on the back. But now, let me ask you, what would you do when two hundred seemingly identical workers showed up at your door, desperate to fill the one position you have open? It’s not like you can hire all of them. Who are you going to give it to?

On the basis of need? Don’t be silly. All of these candidates are poor. Desperately poor. For one thing, these are Bangladeshi nationals who have traveled from Bangladesh to have access to a job that maybe pays four dollars an hour. It’s not like they enjoy the desert heat. The job you have open makes it worthwhile. Their next best alternative might pay 50 cents an hour, considering the huge supply of low-skilled workers available. This job would be a huge gain over their next best option. I wouldn’t say they’d literally do anything to get it, but they’d certainly do a lot. They all need the job.

Okay, maybe the person who looks the most presentable? Fantastic, you’ve just encouraged poor people to spend what little money they have trying to improve their appearance, buying perfumes and shampoos with the money they would have used to feed their kids. You jerk.

How about the person who makes the most convincing case that they need the job? No problem, now they stop using their money on shampoo and start investing in elocution classes, promising to teach them the skills they need to make better presentations and influence people. Now they are giving their kids’ food money to hucksters who take advantage of poor people’s desperation. What is wrong with you?

We all know you could use your position to take advantage of people, giving the job to the most attractive candidate or the one willing to do the most “favors” for you, but you’re incorruptible. You throw up your hands and give away the valuable job to someone at random, ignoring the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the 199 people you are turning away. Doesn’t it feel good to know you did the right thing, and just took the valuable thing you had and gave it away to someone at random?

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