Google tells me that the fundamental attribution error (FAE) was first mentioned at the Garden of Forking Paths on Halloween 2004—by myself. This was about twenty months before I discovered Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases (which I highly recommend) and before I knew anything much about that literature.
But to show that I’m not the only one who considers such biases to be important for the issues discussed here, consider this passage from a book by John Doris (who recently contributed to the GFP Reading Group):
“It is not obvious, then, that situationism unduly complicates standard approaches to the infamous “problem of free will.” Their troubles – if one thinks they have troubles – are of their own making. My trouble is that I think situationism does uniquely problematize two notions central to thinking on responsibility – normative competence (Wolf 1990) and identification (Frankfurt 1988) – notions important in developing compatibilisms with enough psychological texture to provide satisfying underpinnings for the reactive attitudes.”
[Where situationism asserts that: “behavior is—contra the old saw about character and destiny—extraordinarily sensitive to variation in circumstance.]
Note the tension between “it is not obvious, then, that situationism [would make problems for] standard approaches to the free will problem”, on the one hand, and “situationism does uniquely problematize two notions… important in developing compatibilisms…” I would say that Doris is being too modest here about the consequences situationism has for compatibilism.
But situationism and the FAE (two similar, but distinct, concepts which show how people underappreciate the influence of the environment) are just the beginning. As a casual glance of the list of cognitive biases shows, there are oodles and oodles of such biases, and many of them would seem to be relevant to the free will problem.
For an introduction to such biases, consider the following: Daniel Kahneman, one of the cofounders of the heuristics and biases field, has published an article in Foreign Policy arguing that the many cognitive biases are relevant to the question “should we go to war?” and that most or all of them support hawks. The article makes what I will call an Argument from Asymmetrical Vulnerability to Biases (AAVB): because many biases favor hawks and few favor doves, we should be especially skeptical of the hawk’s claims.
In my unpublished article The View from Nowhere through a Distorted Lens, I make an AAVB argument about the free will problem. The relevance of some of these biases to the free will problem is obvious:
The illusion of control
The just world phenomenon
Demonization and biased recall of transgressions
What is interesting about this list is: all of these biases favor belief in free will. They let us believe, to the point of error, that character and not environment explains actions, that we have control over our lives, that the world is fundamentally just, and that the actions of wrongdoers are inexplicable and unpredictable.
If you think that I have cherry-picked this list, please feel free to suggest which biases would favor disbelief in free will. I only know of one potential such bias: the anchoring effect, suggested by an article by John Fischer, and I think there is an excellent rejoinder to those who assert its relevance here (details may be found in my unpublished manuscript).
How far my AAVB argument will work will depend, like Kahneman’s AAVB argument, upon (i) how true it is that each bias is relevant, (ii) how asymmetrical the vulnerability to bias really is, and (iii) the magnitude of relevance of each bias. I expect resistance on all fronts, more or less according to each bias.
With respect to (iii), it might be that many biases are relevant to the free will problem, they all happen to favor belief in free will, but the magnitude of their effects, especially upon expert Ph.ds, is small. I doubt this. But I think this is the best strategy for compatibilists and libertarians to pursue.
Whether this is the best strategy or not, I would suggest that Gardeners (and others working in this field) begin to address the heuristics and biases literature. As philosophers begin to use more the tools of psychology, I expect more arguments like Greene’s (previous post), Doris’ (above) and my own to appear. It will be fascinating to see how each responds to these challenges.
Finally, some questions (to stimulate, if I can, some discussion):
- How relevant do you think these biases are to the free will problem? Might some be relevant but with only small effects? Might others be relevant and with very large effects?
- How asymmetrical do you think the vulnerability to bias is, considering the various camps in the free will debate?