Personal humiliation inspired Lee Ross’ greatest insight.
While defending his doctoral thesis at Columbia University in 1969, a committee of faculty members unleashed a downpour of esoteric questions. Mr. Ross had studied how perceptions differ in bright and dim light. What, asked an inquisitor, is the wavelength of weak light, calculated in the infinitesimal angstrom?
That was what it meant to be a real academic, thought Mr. Ross: to know about things like Angstrom. He was sure he was unworthy.
In the same month he went to Stanford University, where he got a position as an assistant professor. He found himself doing another dissertation, this time in the role of professor.
“I had the remarkable experience that the student seemed intimidated and looked at me like the other faculties,” recalled Professor Ross in an oral history compiled by Stanford last year. “I too could ask questions that, for various reasons, revealed certain knowledge that I happened to have, and I could ask the questions nicely or, if I wanted, slightly scornful.”
Experience, he said, taught him the “enormous difference between being the questioner and the respondent – or more generally, the person who sets the agenda for what is going on and the person with less power.”
Professor Ross expanded this term in his 1977 essay “The Intuitive Psychologist and Its Deficiencies,” arguing that many social misunderstandings are caused by a general tendency to attribute human behavior to personalities rather than external circumstances.
He called this phenomenon “the fundamental attribution error”. The term became a foundational concept in psychology, and provided commentators with a peppy phrase on everything from leadership to crime fighting to socializing in the workplace.
Professor Ross died on May 14th at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 78 years old. His son Josh said the cause was kidney and heart failure.
Professor Ross, who remained on the Stanford faculty until his death, demonstrated the existence of the fundamental attribution error through an experiment. He developed a game in which students at Stanford drew cards that assigned them the roles of quiz master or participant. The quizzer was asked to develop difficult quiz questions and ask them to the participant who invariably had difficulty answering them. Other students watched.
After the game, observers said they thought the Quizmaster was exceptionally knowledgeable and the participant was particularly ignorant.
That was a fundamental mistake in attribution. Behavior that was caused by randomly assigned social roles appeared to the participants more as a consequence of intrinsic character traits.
This began what Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University, called “the reign of error in social psychology,” as Professor Ross’ focus “dominated the field.”
“Lee highlighted the central mistake people make in their social understanding,” Professor Gilbert said in a telephone interview, adding that Professor Ross’ work introducing the fundamental attribution error has become one of the most cited works in psychology.
The term plunged into popular discourse, sometimes as a tool to foster sympathy. A 2014 article in Psychology Today titled “Why We Don’t Take Each Other Break” uses the example of someone who cuts himself into a line in front of you. You might be thinking, “What an idiot,” when in reality that person has never jumped out in a row and is only doing so now because otherwise they would miss a flight to see a dying relative.
“The fundamental attribution error” delivered folk wisdom wrapped in polysyllabic packaging and became one of those academic phrases that add a touch of sophistication to any argument that adorns it. The term has been used to criticize – and argue for – claims about differences between cultures. It was used to suggest that leaders should not be held responsible for the success of their institutions – or for their failures.
Others recommend it as a self-help tip for employees – and for bosses. New York Times columnist David Brooks called it a prime example of a scientific concept that could “improve everyone’s cognitive toolbox” when disseminated.
No author has contributed more to popularizing Professor Ross’ ideas than Malcolm Gladwell. “Almost all of my books are about fundamental attribution errors,” Gladwell said in a telephone interview. “It’s an idea I could never shake off.”
Professor Ross expanded his views in “The Person and the Situation” (1991) to a great theory of psychology, which he co-authored with long-time associate Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. Mr. Gladwell said he devoured the book in a single day at New York University’s Bobst Library.
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“The point of this book,” said Mr. Gladwell, “was simply that if we want to understand ourselves and each other, we need to pay much more attention to the situations we find ourselves in and the surroundings, and to stop doing so linger much of an imaginary conception of the inner self. “
In “The Tipping Point” (2000), Mr. Gladwell’s best-selling first book, he used this mindset as the theoretical underpinning of his argument about the success of the “broken window” theory of policing. This theory suggests that relatively minor changes in the environment, such as graffiti crackdown, can deter serious crimes.
“Someone once said that they thought ‘The Tipping Point’ created a genre of scientific writing,” said Gladwell. “I have a strong feeling that it wasn’t, that it is just a journalistic version of the type of writing I saw in ‘The Person and the Situation’.”
Lee David Ross was born in Toronto on August 25, 1942. His father Dan was a salesman and his mother Minnie (Rifle) Ross worked in a clothing factory. Both were communists.
The dire revelations about Soviet communism that surfaced during de-Stalinization coincided with Lee’s childhood. That gave him an early training in psychology.
“You absorbed one shock, one disenchantment after the other, and yet kept the faith,” he recalled in an interview with the Association for Psychological Science in 2019 of his parents and their comrades. “I was confused about it when I looked at the ability to rationalize – we would say now, reduce dissonance.”
Professor Ross graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1965 and received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Columbia University in 1969. That same year he began teaching at Stanford.
In addition to the fundamental attribution error, Professor Ross has become known for his work on other psychological errors, including the “false consensus effect” – the bias people have when they think their perceptions are more common than they are.
His last book, “The Wisest One in the Room” (2015), which he co-authored with Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, attempted to make the teachings of psychology helpful in everyday life. In “The Person and the Situation” he and Professor Nisbett agreed to write basic psychology material as “high-level gossip”.
“He’s doing ‘Seinfeld’ psychology,” said Richard H. Thaler, the University of Chicago’s Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, in a telephone interview. “As soon as you hear it, there is a piece of life.”
In addition to his son Josh, Professor Ross leaves behind his 56-year-old wife Judith (Spinks) Ross; another son, Tim; two daughters, Rebecca and Katie Ross; and seven grandchildren.
Professor Nisbett said Professor Ross was not only his writing partner, but also “my therapist and my guru”. Professor Nisbett once asked his friend what makes him so adept at guessing.
“’Here’s why, Dick: I’m not taking your point if you tell me what the problem is,’” Professor Nisbett recalls of Professor Ross. “‘I’m trying to find out how the other person or people see it.'”