Graeme Newell

Defensive Attribution

I was running a little late getting back to my job as a stock boy at a local department store. As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a strange yellow glow on the horizon. I looked up in horror to see the store was on fire. Tanker trucks desperately pumped water onto the blaze hoping it would not engulf the whole shopping center.

Fire investigators later determined the blaze started in the back stockroom…the very place where I worked. For the next few weeks I endured multiple interrogations, much akin to a crime drama. Was I a smoker? No. Had I improperly handled volatile chemicals? No. Had I purposefully set the blaze? No.

That stockroom had been filled to overflowing with hundreds of boxes. Any number of things could have caused that fire, but the store managers were convinced that PEOPLE started fires. They needed someone to blame. For years, I had been a top employee, but after that fire, the managers never trusted me again.

Brain research shows that most of us tend to underestimate just how powerfully random events shape our world. All of us have a deep need to feel as though we are in control of our lives. Randomness makes us uncomfortable.

So when good or bad things happen, we rarely attribute them to just plain old good or bad luck. DEFENSIVE ATTRIBUTION will tempt us to concoct a dramatic story with a VICTIM or a PERPETRATOR.

So when a coworker is sacked, we search our brain for all sorts of nefarious causes. Perhaps he was stealing or perhaps the boss had it in for him. We tend to discount that it might just be some random quirk of fate. Why? Because it makes us uncomfortable to think that the same kind of randomness could afflict US.

So next time a big project fails, remember that DEFENSIVE ATTRIBUTION will tempt you to minimize the awesome power of simple bad luck, bad timing, and quirks of fate.