Fundamental Attribution Error and A Tale of Two Tigers

For those of you who somehow don’t know, pro golfer and occasional video game star Tiger Woods has recently been in trouble over not keeping his club in his bag, so to speak. The casualties include endorsement deals with companies who capitalized on Woods’s previous reputation as focused and reliable, but interestingly game publisher EA isn’t dropping him. EA Sports President Peter Moore recently said that they intend to stick with the athlete on properties like the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series:

Our relationship with Tiger has always been rooted in golf. We didn’t form a relationship with him so that he could act as an arm’s length endorser. Far from it. We chose to partner with Tiger in 1997 because we saw him as the world’s best, most talented and exciting golfer. We struck that partnership with the assumption that he would remain near or at the top of his sport for years to come.

By his own admission, he’s made some mistakes off the course. But regardless of what’s happening in his personal life, and regardless of his decision to take a personal leave from the sport, Tiger Woods is still one of the greatest athletes in history.

This is surprisingly rational behavior, because Moore (and EA by extension) is explicitly avoiding a very fundamental bias in human psychology: the “fundamental attribution error,” or “FAE.” It’s so fundamental, it’s got “fundamental” right there in its name. You can’t get more fundamental than that!

Tiger doing his best Darth Vader impersonation.

FAE is people’s tendency to rely too much on internal attributes (like personality) to explain others’ behavior and to underestimate external attributes (like the situation or environment). 1 The classic example is to imagine that someone is talking to you and that they cross their arms. FAE would lead us to believe that this body language is because they’re defensive or dislike you. But maybe the thermostat is set low and the person is just cold.

The other classic example of FAE was provided by Edward Jones and Keith Harris in an experiment where they asked subjects to read essays that were either in favor of or against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. 2 Even when told that writers were randomly asked to manufacture a pro or anti Castro essay on the basis of a coin toss, subjects STILL tended to believe that the authors wrote what they wrote because they held the views espoused in their essays. In other words, they attributed the essays to internal factors (beliefs) instead of external ones (instructions by the experimenter).

Where does this tie in to Tiger? While browsing Jonah Lehrer’s excellent blog, I came across his post on the Woods controversy, which quoted from a New Yorker article on the same subject:

Woods’s appeal was based, ultimately, not on his physical abilities but on his mental toughness, his extraordinary capacity for focus and discipline. He was the man who always made the key putt, who never cracked under pressure. That’s why Gatorade, introducing a new drink with his face on the label, called the drink Tiger Focus. And it’s why the most powerful Nike ad about him is the one in which his father, in a voice-over, says, “I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn’t . . . and he never will.’”

In other words, Woods has been presented as the embodiment of bourgeois virtues: dedication, hard work, single-mindedness. Indeed, when, in 2008, Woods won the U.S. Open while essentially playing on one leg, the Times’ David Brooks devoted a column to his extraordinary ability to block out distraction and focus on the matter at hand, dubbing him “the exemplar of mental discipline” for our time. For millions of people–many of them, to be sure, affluent middle-aged white guys–Woods embodied an approach not just to golf but to life.

Lehrer goes on to expand on how this relates to the FAE. Before the scandal, we attributed all of Tiger’s success to his fundamental, internal qualities –his drive, talent, focus, and personality. When the headlines hit the fan, everything we heard about Woods was that he was unfaithful, dishonest, and unreliable. We were shocked (and thus interested in the story) because we couldn’t figure out why someone with such focus and drive could do what he did. It did not compute, because the FAE makes it hard to consider how his behavior on the greens could have more to do with the fact that he was ON THE GREENS and that his behaviors could vary so much across situations.

But squishy human brains tend not to work that way; we think that everything he does is based on the little slice of character we’ve seen on TV, so everyone drastically re-evaluated who he “is.” Which is not to say, of course, that infidelity is excused in any circumstances; it’s just a matter of how shocking it is to us when we held someone in high regard based on seeing him mostly in just one situation and can’t resolve the “two Tigers” we think we see, when it’s really just one Tiger who acts differently when he’s golfing.

This is why I think EA’s decision (for now, anyway) to stick with Woods for their PGA Tour series is commendable, or at least rational. Woods may be a philanderer in some situations 3, but on the golf course, real or virtual, he still embodies all those things that EA wants to associate with its brand –competence, focus, reliability, and top-tier play. Despite his cheating on his wife, Woods is still a great golfer.

Well, he would be, if he hadn’t dropped out of the game. But you know what I mean.

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Footnotes:

1. Curiously, we do just the inverse when attributing causes to our own behavior
2. Jones, E. E. & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1–24.
3. Such as when he’s philandering

9 thoughts on “Fundamental Attribution Error and A Tale of Two Tigers

  1. Of course, EA’s decision seems to rely on the off-chance that none of their customers exhibit the FAE either, which seems pretty unlikely.

    Granted, Tiger’s still the only household name in golf, so EA may have decided that it’s the best of two evils.

  2. Their decision to include a “Cheat on your wife” minigame in the PGA Tour series is, I think, somewhat more questionable.

  3. I think brands want to present themselves with a certain image and thus worry if their main guy (or gal) behaves badly and ends up in the tabloids having screwed around with someone in a car park. What’s ironic though is that it’s massively commonplace and people – normal people – do stuff like that all of the time and really don’t care. I’ve never thought to myself “better not buy product X because the person on the front of the packet snorted some coke last week” :)

  4. Great blog!
    I’ve long been interested in these fundamentals of psychology and how they reveal the patterns of our game playing habits. After reading swathes of stuff by game designers, writers, computer scientists and media studies people, its good to see an actual psychologist discussing it.

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