It’s not you, it’s me

Attribution is the psychosocial process of discerning the causes of things – something we all do every day.

Something great happens to you. Who takes the credit?

Something not so great happens to you. Who do you blame?


Fundamental attribution error (FAE) is the intriguing and subjective phenomenon that describes the tendency to overstate attribution internally (i.e. to one’s self) or externally (i.e. to one’s surroundings and/or circumstances), depending on the recipient of the good or bad “event”.

Here’s how FAE works – a 30 second version:

Something good happens to me Something bad happens to me


“I’m amazing! I totally did that! It was ALL ME!! I always knew I had a secret talent for winning raffles!”


“That had NOTHING to do with me. That idiot pulled out in front of me!”

Something good happens to someone else Something bad happens to someone else


“That result was clearly nothing to do with her – she only passed because the Professor fancies her.”


“All. Their. Fault.”


Interestingly, this pattern of credit and blame is observed more in individualistic societies (e.g. the Western world), whereas in more collective cultures FAE occurs less. But is this typical? I don’t know…

Does FAE exist for some people in reverse – let’s call it “Reverse FAE”, or RFAE?

Are any of these familiar?

Something good happens to me Something bad happens to me


“Well, I can’t take much of the credit. After all, I did have a lot of spare time to cure cancer. No big deal. Anyone could’ve done it…”

THE WALLOW“She didn’t call me baaack… It’s all my fault!”
Something good happens to someone else Something bad happens to someone else
The PEDESTAL ELEVATION“Well, I’m sure Donald Trump has some good policies up his sleeve…”


“He only hit that parked car because it was raining…”


I propose that the size and type of FAE (or RFAE) can depend on factors such as:

  • Mood and present state – Are we having a good or bad day?
  • Previous experience – Has something similar happened before? and
  • The other person – the “someone else” – Do we know them? Do we like them? Are they a friend, acquaintance or stranger?

I also propose that at times, fundamental attribution error isn’t actually an error, but is an accurate surmise of the situation!

But I could be mistaken…

– Marianne Campbell, Director, Mint Research

What do you mean?

It’s easy to ask someone a question, and to report the response.

It’s harder to ask the right question, receive the response, and interpret that response for its meaning. The responsibility of a qualitative researcher is to look beyond what someone is saying, and extract the true meaning; the real deal.

When working with attitudes and behaviours that challenge social expectations, getting to the truth can be a minefield. Unmasking the papier-mâché of bias and unravelling the complex webs of justification require a researcher to be delicate, yet unafraid to gently confront.

I’m going to discuss only two of the many behavioural and attitudinal conundrums a social researcher faces daily.

When we think about our own behaviour, a lot of what we say and do is driven by social pressures – some we are conscious of, while others are engrained in the collective conscience and begin shaping our behaviour from tiny human stage. This is social desirability bias – the tendency to act and respond in a way that we believe will be looked upon favourably by others. It presents in many forms across a wide range of theories and paradigms (Azjen’s ‘subjective norm’, Kahneman’s ‘System 2’, and even cameos in social identity and obedience theories – e.g. Tajfel, Zimbardo and Milgram, to name a few). It even underpins today’s vernacular – “I should…”, “I shouldn’t…”. This superficial veil has a lot to answer for, and social researchers must be particularly mindful of SDB’s traps when working with a myriad of topics sensitive to this bias – from addiction, mental health, and prejudice, to physical appearance, income, and charitable behaviours.

If that’s not complex enough… another paradigm commonly observed in social research is Festinger’s cognitive dissonance (a personal favourite of mine). A complex paradigm, but here’s a 30 second version:

It’s common to hold two or more contradictory or inconsistent beliefs, values, needs, behaviours, etc.

This causes psychological discomfort.

For instance, for simplicity’s sake, picture a health-conscious person who eats quinoa and kale, and washes it down with a bottle or two of (biodynamic) wine every night.

What does this person do to reconcile their internal inconsistency?

Cue “band-aid” solution. A band-aid sits over the top and justifies the inconsistency; ergo “Wine helps me unwind and relax, which is most important to me”.

The band-aid could be an ineffective plastic one that slides off or rips, causing the person stress, which might motivate them to change one belief or another, or find another way to rationalise, in order to regain comfort.

Or the band aid might be a strong fabric one; a fool-proof justification, allowing someone to forge forward, bluffing themselves with imagined internal consistency.

This is just a tiny slice of what a social researcher is faced with – disentangling the elements of a response, a behaviour, an interaction (or hundreds) that are driven by bias and underpinned by justification, and peeling back the band-aid to gently expose the raw and sometimes unpleasant truth.

-Marianne Campbell, Director, Mint Research

Fight Procrastination with Timeboxing

Sure, I can write this article now. But first, let me make another coffee.

Yesterday, September 6th 2015 was Fight Procrastination Day.

Whether you knew it was Fight Procrastination Day yesterday or not, think about what you did: Did you complete something off your work or home to-do list yesterday?

When thinking about this issue of to-do lists and procrastination despite the best of intentions, I’m reminded of my Psych Honours thesis (2004). The thesis focussed on the effectiveness of “implementation intentions” (Gollwitzer, 1999). Implementation intentions are self-regulatory strategies that describe intentions to achieve goals. Put more simply, these can be called action plans.

But setting the goal is the easy part, isn’t it? Actually pursuing the goal requires the most effort, right?

“Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil.” – Oscar Wilde

An action plan or implementation intention if designed correctly should push a high level intention beyond the mere ambit of aspiration, into the domain of engaging with and endeavouring through the task. Setting an action plan requires you to dictate specific detail of when, where, and exactly how you’ll do something, and it’s been shown under many circumstances to increase goal achievement. It’s a simple idea with broad effective application.

An element of an action plan that’s used in the workplace is a “time box”; a fixed time period where you commit to working on or completing a specific task. I’ve been consciously timeboxing every day for over a month now. At the end of each day, I timebox the following day.

Timeboxing is a technique that has succeeded with me, and what’s more it seems to have been successful in adding itself to the workplace vernacular. Timeboxing helps focus thought and action, in order to complete even the longest and most arduous of projects (you know the ones, with a protracted deadline some way into the future, which seem to come with a time vortex free of charge) faster.

So with my newfound devotion to the timebox, gone are the days where I find myself working right up to a project’s nominated deadline, filling my days with musings and procrastination, while I spend the total amount of time available to me. My attention is focussed where it needs to be, and my mind doesn’t wander off to try to address peripheral issues at the same time.

My little boxes of time and I are working together to fight procrastination and knock off projects on and ahead of schedule.

Anyway, article done, in good time. Time for that coffee.

-Marianne Campbell, Director, Mint Research

Altruism – does it really exist?

We all know what it is to ‘give back’. Some form of PDP (public display of philanthropy) from the companies we interact with is almost expected.

You could argue then that altruism is alive and well. But is it really? Without trying to sound (too) cynical, is there really such a thing as altruism?

What are the reasons companies give? I would argue not because of an exclusive selfless concern for the wellbeing of others, but with the hope for a myriad of external paybacks such as improved public perception, positive social media sharing, improved reputation in the eyes of customers – hopefully transferring to loyalty and retention. There are also many internal benefits for the organisation itself. Charitable giving improves employee engagement by boosting productivity, ethical behavior, gratitude to the organization, pride, improvements in morale and teamwork in these organisations.

Okay, so this is not new news, but what about on a personal level; do we really give only to help others? Or because actually, deep down it makes us feel pretty damn good about ourselves?

It’s actually true – research shows that giving makes you happier – it can even improve your health! Interestingly, there are findings from numerous studies supporting this idea. In 2008, a study published in Science magazine showed a correlation between the amounts of donations a person made and their self-reported happiness. Respondents were handed out money and told to spend it however they wanted. Those who chose to spend the money on themselves were no happier that evening, but those who spent it on others reported higher degrees of happiness. Recently, published research in the Journal of Economic Psychology, found that donating to charity may actually improve the giver’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

The idea that generosity can lead to increased happiness is not a new idea, Buddhists have been onto this idea for years. Think about Karma – the appeal to generosity is made on the basis of long-term self-interest. If we wish to receive, we first must give.

So if altruism in its truest sense is defined as ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’, is it really alive and well if there is even only a degree of self-interest? Or is there a paradox, that we are all ‘selfishly giving’? What do you think?

At the end of the day perhaps it doesn’t matter what the motivation is, only that those in need benefit. So do something good for others AND yourself. This Saturday, September 5th, is the United Nations’ International day of Charity, marking the ‎anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa.

-Melodie Climent, Director, Mint Research

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