"You're all a bunch of..." A look at group attribution bias

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found at the bottom of this blog or here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.

 

Group attribution error/bias

Group attribution error is our tendency to believe either that:

  • the characteristics of an individual or group are reflective of the group as a whole

or

  • that a group's decision must reflect the preferences of individual group members.

This is also related to 'group fallacy' or the 'outgroup homogeneity bias'.


Basically it means if you're part of the group, you're more likely to connect a fellow group member's actions to their arbitrary and individual circumstances: James acted like that because that's his personality.


Whereas if you're not part of the group, you're more likely to attribute a non-group member's actions to something in that group's inherent disposition: James acts like that because he's a Kiwi man.


Here's the difference: James made that decision because he's James (attribute to the individual).

Not, James made that decision because he's a Kiwi man (attribute to a group defined by two attributes - nationality and gender).


This bias relies on the assumption that everyone in the group is the same, all homogenous. And we know logically that's simply not true. But that doesn't stop this bias from creeping in all the time. Anytime we connect groups on one similarity, we fall into dangerous stereotyping territory.


Group attribution bias in action

I saw an article the other day titled "Scrum does not work here in Asia." It doesn't work for half of the world's population? Sounds fishy. I definitely understand that there are cultural norms, values and traditions which impact people's ways of working - but this seems like we're in stereotyping territory.


Here was one example the author, Joshua Partogi, provided:

The Asian education system is all about high grades and ranks, not about experimenting, self-discovery and making mistakes, which is what Agility is all about. Having been taught in school and university where people are not encouraged to make lots of mistakes and encounter their own teachers and lecturers for almost sixteen years, Asians do not feel safe to make mistakes at the workplace.

Funny, because that sounds exactly like my K-12 education in Ohio. All of it teaching to the standardised tests. But yet to Partogi this was a piece of evidence which suggested that Asians can't adopt Scrum. Surely more nuance than that exists. Not surprisingly a few authors rebutted this claim - some of which are summarised here.

Here's another one to think about: Male. Stale. Pale.


You may have heard this to describe 50+ white men. I've definitely been guilty of saying this and thinking this more time than once. (I've used this example before)


We know that all white men are not the same and have not had the same experiences. And yet - we want to reduce them and their experience to a single perspective.


Here are some I've heard or been guilty of saying myself recently:

  • Of course he thinks that, he's a _________. (no matter what group you put in here it applies)

  • All (insert political group) supporters are _________.

  • Pretty much anything about people who haven't been vaccinated.

  • The _____ team just acts like that.

  • All BA's are _____.

Quick story:

I remember being at a dinner right after Trump got elected. Towards the end of the night Trump got brought up (as he always did).


The person I was sitting next to all night, declared "well, we know that Americans are f*cking idiots and....."


I didn't really hear the rest of what he said. I went into threat mode - with a mixture of freeze then fight - and wanted to defend myself and my countrymen. I was probably quite petty to him for the rest of the night. It sounds small, but even writing about it now I remember how uncomfortable I felt being lumped into this group - particularly when the implication is so negative.


And let's just be honest for a second - this is nothing. The comments I received during the 45th's time in office were nowhere near as damaging as the everyday racist remarks (or sexist, ageist, etc). that some people experience, especially because I could distance myself from it, like I know! I didn't vote for him either!!!!!


But it was a good reminder of how uncomfortable being lumped into a group can be.


If we don't like it being done to us, why do we do this to others?

Blame it on our brains.


It's because our brains are lazy. Or at least - they're trying to be. They have a strong need to conserve energy. It's actually a mega-multitasking-hardass-machine and is trying to find ways to slack off.


And one thing that's energy sapping is seeing everyone as an individual. So our brains take shortcuts.


It's easier to group people than to evaluate the individual. When we don't have enough meaning, we fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories. But when this happens to us we really don't like it. And neither do other people when it happens to them.


The 'Me vs We' tension

Researchers Nisha Nair and Neharika Vohra discussed this tension in their paper: “Diversity and inclusion at the workplace: a review of research and perspectives."


They noted our need to celebrate the individual (me) within the group (we).

People appear to have the two opposing needs of belongingness and uniqueness in group settings. When individuals feel too similar to other group members, they try to set themselves apart in order to feel unique. And on the other hand, when they feel too different from group members, they feel they don't belong and may try to assimilate and become more similar... When both uniqueness and belongingness needs are met, the individual feels inclusion.

Here's how Nair and Vohra defined the matrix:

And the group attribution bias is one reason people can feel excluded or boxed in by other people.


And if this is fluid within ourselves (our need for uniqueness within belongingness) it can be difficult to get right for others as well. Another reason workplaces need to be deliberate and purposeful about discussing this balance and taking actions to make sure everyone feels included and valued.


EY got it right with their advertisement:

  • Can you fit in and stand out at your workplace and within your team?

  • Are your diverse perspectives and skills valued in your team?

  • Do you feel respected and connected for who you are?

  • How does your team and workplace come together to make sure everyone feels included?

  • Are your viewpoint and working preferences taken into account?


Bias blogs

We've been hearing a lot about unconscious bias recently (rightfully so). And we want to make this real and practical for you. There have been over 180 cognitive biases identified. Read the following blogs to explore specific, individual biases, how they show up in our lives/workplaces, and what we can do about it.

References

  • Allison, S. T. & Messick, D. M. (1985). The group attribution error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 21, 563-579

  • Cheng, J. Yo-Jud and Groysberg, Boris. “Research: What Inclusive Companies Have in Common.” Harvard Business Review. 18 June 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/06/research-what-inclusivecompanies-have-in-common

  • Nair, Nisha and Vohra, Neharika. “diversity and inclusion at the workplace: a review of research and perspectives.”IIMA Working Papers WP2015-03-34, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Research and Publication Department. 2015. https://ideas.repec.org/p/iim/iimawp/13347.html