Fitness Insider Groups and the Ultimate Attribution Error

Posted on 15 Sep 2013 17:47

You can read the article or listen to the video talk below, which has more material in it, with additional commentary.

The fitness industry is made up of in-groups and out-groups. Of course, whatever group you are in, is the in-group as far as you are concerned. Some groups have more social power than others, however, and are able to draw more members. So we have something like minorities in the fitness world. William Graham Summer, an American sociologist and a social-Darwinist, is said to have coined the terms in-group and out-group, in his 1906 book Folkways. I use these terms differently than the nasty way in which he used them.

People in more socially dominant in-groups always think they are on the high-road. We have a tendency to give ourselves permission to be complete jerks, without even knowing it. How do we do this? Well, psychologists (at least North American ones) call it the ultimate attribution error.

The Fundamental Attribution Error (or Bias)

Attribution has to do with how we explain other peoples behavior…how we make sense of them. Specifically, we tend to attribute their behaviors to internal or external causes. You see another error, the fundamental attribution error, all the time. This is the tendency to attribute the actions of a person more to their traits and abilities rather than to any external influences. If a person is successful, it is because they worked harder than a person that is less successful. This kind of thinking is much more prevalent in individualistic societies like the United States.

So, to put that in plain language, a person who makes a great deadlift, is a bad-ass hard working dude. A person who attempts a big deadlift and gets injured, is an idiot who tried too much weight. This may seem an unfair example, but we see it often. In both examples, however, external factors could have contributed to the outcome of the lift, and a good lifter had good and bad days in the gym.

Ultimate Attribution Error

But the ultimate attribution error is about groups, not individuals. If members of an out-group do something we see as positive or good, we tend to attribute this to happenstance, luck, or some external thing. If they do something we see as negative or bad, it is because they are dishonest or otherwise morally flawed.

For the in-group, it is the opposite. If I am a member of the in-group, and I start acting like a complete A-hole, it is because of the situation. I "lost control" because the situation pushed me over the edge. I'm normally an all-around good guy. If I do something good, of course, it is because I am an all-around good guy. I'm talking about how other people in the group see it. Put me in the wrong group and that reverses.

Sometimes, these internal attributions are not errors. Sometimes an A-hole is just an A-hole. The point is that it is not only about you as an individual, but that the social group you belong to can lead to these attributions.

Personally, I try to avoid this if I can. It is hard but I'm not into giving people permission to be condescending, rude, or childish because they are part of a powerful group. I don't think sarcasm is a very good display of reason and intelligence. But sometimes I am rude, childish, and sarcastic. I have no doubt, in fact, that I have been condescending on more than one occasion. It is tempting to find this behavior in others to be due to internal causes. I.E. that person is rude, or childish, or condescending. Yet, I may be more likely to attribute this behavior in myself to external causes. This is yet another attributional bias, called the actor-observer bias. Here, we have a tendency to attribute other people's behavior to internal causes while attributing our own to external causes, especially when those behaviors are negative. I have to be cautious and remind myself of something I came to terms with long ago: Yes, some people and situations set me off, but nobody can make me act a certain way. I act this way sometimes because I am prone to grouchiness!

You have every right to ask me if I am a social scientist. NO. I am not even close to being a social scientist, or a scientist in any way. But I think that being a better trainer means to understand the social environment, and social psychology is one way we learn about this. I also am just interested. However, if I am going to learn about sociology, I must not just drift toward the stuff that makes me feel better about myself because I can now recognize some common cognitive biases. Most biases, we are not aware of when they have a hold on us. Right now, with the insider name-dropping and endorsement trading that rules the fitness industry, and to some extent the publishing industry, this is something that we need to pay attention to.

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This page created 15 Sep 2013 17:47
Last updated 22 Jul 2016 04:21

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