Written by
Łukasz Olczyk

Łukasz Olczyk

Fatal Attribution: On Eating, Blaming and Being Lazy

I remember working once with a brilliant and extremely talented engineer, who, to my knowledge and observation, had this one tiny flaw. He was incredibly lazy. Whenever something was asked of him, he did it straight away – and then just went on to watch videos on YouTube. Whole team noticed this and people were becoming more and more irritated. I had to do something about it. And, obviously, I started in the dumbest way possible.

What I did – heck, what we all did – was allowing ourselves to create a subconscious filters. If you’re into neuro-linguistic programming or cognitive-behavioral therapy, you probably know what I mean. In an amazing (and complicated) process, our brains create labels for everything within our cognition. Say a leaf, a cloud, a tree and so on. All the possible attributes (visual, audial, sensory, conceptual, etc.) are associated with the label and stored. This way, whenever I see a cloud, I just consider it a cloud, without staring at it and analyzing the shape, possible function, colors and so on. It’s a fantastic system, which, not only makes our daily lives easier thanks to stereotyping but even makes our lives possible at all. It’s one of the mechanisms that created all terrestrial life as we know it.

In addition to relatively easy recognition of objects, the same system allows us to predict their behavior. This way, you expect tree to swing with the wind, you expect leaves to fall during autumn and you expect any random teenager to be unbearably annoying.

What does it have to do with our friend, the engineer? Well, thing that everybody in the team – unfortunately, including me – associated him with label “idler”. It didn’t take long before we started to actually expect him to space out into YouTube. Another interesting thing is we barely ever noticed him working! That’s one of the related cognitive biases – selective perception – kicking in. It’s another interesting mechanism. Let me give you a real life example. Let’s just say you happened to see few drivers in modified cars to drive recklessly. Then, your brain is likely to create an association inside your mind. It will be something like “Tuners drive like idiots”. Before you know it, you’ll start noticing a lot of them, each driving like a lunatic. Your brain will pay more attention to events proving your beliefs. Interestingly, whenever you see a modified car driving in the normal manner, you are likely to not notice it at all! And that’s what happened to our friend. We all labeled him the idler, therefore, very soon, we started to see him doing nothing useful. The mood within the team went down.

But maybe we were wrong to use that label in the first place? Indeed.

There is a phenomenon known as Fundamental Attribution Error. Long story short – we often blame the person, when it’s situation that need fixing. Do you know that when you give people popcorn in the bigger boxes at the cinema, they’ll eat more? And no other factor matters. There’s no correlation with their lifestyles, gender, education, occupation, orientation, weight, height, age – nothing. One thing that changes is the size of their boxes. When one thinks about it for a while, the conclusion is rather uneasy. We don’t really have control on such basic aspects of our lives. When given more food, we will eat more (there’s this interesting thing about obesity in some countries – nowhere else in the world you’ll see portions in the restaurants that HUGE). So, it’s not people that change, it’s the situation.

So what did we do with our friend? Once we analyzed how he worked and spoke with him, we noticed two things. First, being gifted with fantastic skills, he didn’t really have that much to do for most of the time. Second, he was just being honest – and when he had nothing to do, he just did nothing. Most people in his shoes just stare at the monitor or read blog after blog after blog just to look busy (by the way, are you now at work, reading this?). There was nothing wrong with him. The situation was something we could change – and we did. We assigned a newly employed engineer to be trained by him. Also, we modified our way of working slightly, so that his part (verification) was more important and his input was necessary more often. He stayed the same person, but as situation around him changed, he adapted.

To sum up: labeling things prevents our brains from overloading, labeling people prevents us from making sensible and smart decisions. And we should always analyze and tweak situation to see if the problem is really personal.

(Post originally published at my blog:

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