2021vii31, Saturday: Ours, theirs, and attribution.

Our minds play tricks on us. All the time. One trick is particularly pernicious – but recognising it can change the world.

I’ve just ordered another of these, for my room in Chambers. Everyone needs reminding. Lawyers perhaps more than most. Link in the paragraph below.

I’ve long been fascinated by cognitive biases and logical fallacies: the tricks our minds play on us, driven deep within our psyches like paths trodden across hillsides over centuries of traversing feet. I have posters on my home office wall listing many of the most common ones. And when I was at StanChart, I built them into a class for new graduate trainees.

In some ways, the fallacies are more fun, not least because some of the names are evocative as hell. The no true Scotsman fallacy. (“That lad in the paper who did the murder. Must’ve been English. No Scotsman would do that.” “No – says here he was from Falkirk.” “Ah – well, no true Scotsman would do that.”) The Texas sharpshooter fallacy. (Just because some set of data makes a neat group, don’t assume a connection. It’s possible the set may have been chosen – deliberately or unconsciously – to fit the hypothesis, like someone shooting at a wall and then drawing the target in afterwards to fit the grouping.) And one that us barristers may be particularly vulnerable to, the fallacy fallacy. (Don’t dismiss a claim just because it’s been poorly argued, or because the explanation for it includes a fallacy. In other words: the best skeleton argument, the best advocacy, is sometimes going to fail if the other side’s underlying case is – well – just better. Not always, thank goodness, otherwise we’d be out of a job. But sometimes.)

But the cognitive biases are more pernicious. And one in particular has a devastating effect – not only on us as individuals, but on us as groups. It’s the attribution effect. It was identified by a man named Lee Ross, many years ago. Ross died recently, and I was reminded of this critical bias by a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing about him, about the error, but mostly about just how fundamental it is to understanding where we’re going wrong – and what we can, each of us, do about it.

OK. That was a bit cheeky there, using the word “fundamental”. Because when Ross first identified this, he called it the “fundamental attribution error”. As originally formulated, it referred to our tendency to look at others’ conduct and take it as arising from their character, not their situation. “So that woman over there who didn’t let me into slow-moving traffic? She must be SO selfish. Dread to think what it’d be like to work with her.”

Yes, I know, that’s a simplistic example. But it’s enough to shine a light on what I’m talking about. How often do we look at others, see a snapshot of their behaviour, and take it as a synecdoche of who they really are? And how often do we consider that it might instead just be a moment of thoughtlessness or inattention brought on by a really bad day? A sick relative? An angry boss? An unexpected bill?

Then there’s the flip side, which we customarily apply to ourselves. So we snapped at a waiter. But that’s not us. That’s because he took too long to bring the bill. Or because we have to work this weekend. Or because of that blasted woman who made us late to the restaurant because she wouldn’t let us into traffic.

(There’s another similar bias, the self-serving bias: the tendency to see our errors as down to circumstance or dumb mischance and our successes as entirely down to our own greatness and hard work. I’m sure none of us recognise that one. No. Of course not…)

In psychological terms, this is the difference between dispositional attribution – something that arises from who we are – and situational attribution, which is driven by external circumstance.

I imagine we all recognise it now. It probably feels like just one of those things that make us human. So why am I saying it’s so important, and so pernicious?

Because in a world which seems more and more divided into us and them, in-group and out-group (for me, this will always be the Japanese terms “uchi” and “soto”, which carry huge emotional resonance for any Japanophile), attribution is deadly. We see it all the time: the easy justification of what “our” people do as necessary, external forced upon us by the times, by the circumstances… or of by course the other lot. Whose actions are driven by malice, or by political beliefs which are selfish or evil or at best just plain incomprehensible to real people (however defined). Real people like us.

Meaning that whatever we do, we do reluctantly and in good faith, and with the best of intentions. And whatever they do, they do because they’re just that kind of awful people.

Tell me you don’t see it. Every day. Now tell me you don’t do it. I wish I could. I can’t.

For students of cognitive bias, there are some clear crossovers here, indicating that an uchi/soto split seems to drive large chunks of our psychic plumbing. There’s the halo and horns effect, which means things done by those who’ve made a good impression on you in the past will seem good, whereas things done by those you’ve had reason (perhaps?) to despise will seem bad – irrespective of what either is actually doing. There’s the availability heuristic, where things that are recent, close or present seem more relevant to decision-making, more prevalent, than more distant things – and, of course, those in your immediate group as as close as it gets. And then there’s the old favourite, confirmation bias, where you overweight evidence that confirms your existing beliefs and downgrade evidence that opposes it.

So maybe we’re hardwired to attribution when it comes to our group and theirs. Not surprising, perhaps. But as the writer of the piece I linked to points out, as we atomise more and more, this tendency will burrow deep and destroy us – unless, as with all cognitive biases, we do our best to see it happening in ourselves, rather than just letting it rip.

This is one reason I have so little patience with dog-whistle labels and straw-manning, from whichever side of the political spectrum they arise. The label triggers the attribution: I can stop thinking about that lot, it says, seductively. I know their sort. And I know their motives. Not like us righteous types over here.

Can we stop ourselves doing this? Of course we can’t. Can we strive to mitigate it? Yes. Should we? You’ll need your own answer to that. I know mine.


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2021vii26, Monday: now read this.

Not my stuff, obviously. But the piece I’m linking to – entitled “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say” – is breathtaking. Do yourself a favour. Please.

Someone is so, so right on the internet: Another short one. I’d say I’m making up for lost time, but that would sound – given the content of this scribble – as though I was trying to be ironic. And I’m really not.

Someone I love has recently had the kind of diagnosis which can fill you with despair. Make you scream at the universe for its uncaring cruelty. Stage 4 cancer. Damnation.

And yet, I won’t scream or gesticulate. I refuse to. Because they’re not. They’re marvelling at the blessing of a life well lived, that they’re still living well, and refusing to take this as anything but a thing that happens.

It helps that they have faith. That they’re sure, quietly but firmly, that it’s not the end of the road. Only the end of this one.

But that aside, the resolute acceptance, and the ongoing love for all those around them, is an example before which I’m humbled. I’ll honour it by reflecting it as best I can.

I mention this not for sympathy (I don’t need it, since this person doesn’t), but as a lead-in to a truly breathtaking piece of journalism to which John Naughton (bless the man) linked in his daily newsletter this morning. (He got it via Helen Lewis, whose newsletter is also a blessing.)

John called it his “Long Read, not just of the Day, or even the Year, but perhaps of a lifetime”.

I might not go that far. But I’m close. It’s stellar.

And it’s strange. I was sure I cleaned my glasses last night. Yet they’re all misty again.


Update: Nigel Morris-Cotterill, one of the foremost experts around on money laundering, shared his experiences with losing his father on LinkedIn after reading this. He wrote a book after his father’s death, entitled “Ten Things You Need to Know about Dealing with Death” (Amazon page hereNigel’s piece on LinkedIn about it here). I’ve only skimmed the list of the ten things, rather than the book itself, but I agree with them all. 


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2021vii25, Sunday: Take me home.

I spent my Saturday lost in music. Oh sweet Jesus. It was… wonderful.

I’ll make this brief.

Go to the cinema. Watch Summer of Soul. Soon as you can.


For those without the privilege to have encountered this superlative movie, the short version: in the summer of 1969, as hippies and drop-outs were converging on Woodstock in upstate New York, tens of thousands of New York’s Black folk were gathering in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival. Six days, over six weekends, of the best of soul, jazz and gospel music. It was filmed. No-one wanted to use the footage. And it languished in a basement for half a century – until Questlove, from The Roots, rescued it and cut the best bits together into a documentary.

And oh, sweet Lord, it’s stunning. Sure, it was lovely to be back in the Barbican cinema to see it – a favourite place of our family, where we haven’t set foot in the best part of two years. But the true glory was to be lifted up by music that filled us all with joy wholly unconfined.

Now, soul music per se may mean nothing to you. (Although I just can’t imagine how that could be. Lord, what a life…)

But live footage, at the height of their powers, of Sly and the Family Stone? Stevie Wonder? Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln? Mahalia Jackson? Mavis Staples? (Hearing Sister Mahalia take the mic from Mavis and let raw emotion ride in Dr King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord, Take Me Home… wow.) The Fifth Dimension? Gladys Knight and the Pips? Ray Barretto? Mongo Santamaria? And – with a performance of Backlash Blues that practically raised the roof of the cinema – Miss Nina Simone herself? All of this put in the context of 1969, at the end of the decade which saw so many lives taken, famous (think Dr King, Malcolm, the Kennedy brothers) and unknown alike – and Black Power find its voice?

Come on, people. It’s beyond glorious. If music does anything to you, if it even remotely has that trick of showing you parts of your heart that just don’t come out any other way, be kind to yourself. See this.

We’re already planning to see it again.

(Update: it’s on Disney+. Glory be. The big screen is best, but this is great news too.)

The only thing that hurt was thinking of all the hours of other footage still unseen. Just imagine if it could be digitised, put online. Oh my. What a dream that would be…


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2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.


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