Never Ask a Writer If the Novel Is Autobiographical
Fundamental Attribution Error
Opening the newspaper, you learn that another CEO has been forced to step down because of bad results. In the sports section, you read that your team’s winning season was thanks to player X or coach Y. In history books, you learn that the success of the French army in the early 1800s is a testament to Napoleon’s superb leadership and strategy. “Every story has a face,” it seems. Indeed, this is an ironclad rule in every newsroom. Always on the lookout for the “people angle,” journalists (and their readers) take this principle one step further, and thus fall prey to the fundamental attribution error. This describes the tendency to overestimate individuals’ influence and underestimate external, situational factors.
In 1967, researchers at Duke University set up the following experiment: Participants read an argument either lauding or loathing Fidel Castro. They were informed that the author of the text had been allocated the viewpoint regardless of his true political views; he was just making a coherent argument. Nevertheless, most of the audience believed what he said reflected his true opinion. They falsely attributed the content of the speech to his character and ignored the external factors—in this case, the professors who had crafted the text.
The fundamental attribution error is particularly useful for whittling negative events into neat little packages. For example, the “blame” for wars we lazily push onto individuals: The Yugoslav assassin in Sarajevo has World War I on his conscience, and Hitler singlehandedly caused World War II. Many swallow these simplifications, even though wars are unforeseeable events whose innumerable dynamics we may never fully understand. Which sounds a little like financial markets and climate issues, don’t you agree?
We see this same pattern when companies announce good or bad results. All eyes shift to the CEO’s office, even if we know the truth: Economic success depends far more on the overall economic climate and the industry’s attractiveness than on brilliant leadership. It is interesting how frequently firms in ailing industries replace their CEOs—and how seldom that happens in booming sectors. Are ailing industries less careful in their recruitment processes? Such decisions are no more rational than what happens between football coaches and their clubs.
I often go to musical concerts. In my hometown of Lucerne, in the center of Switzerland, I am spoiled with one-off classical recitals. During the intermission, however, I notice that the conversations almost always revolve around the conductors and/or soloists. With the exception of world premieres, composition is rarely discussed. Why not? The real miracle of music is, after all, the composition, the creation of sounds, moods, and rhythms where previously only a blank sheet lay. The difference among scores is a thousand times more impressive than the difference among performances of the same score. But we do not think like this. The score is—in contrast to the conductors and soloists—faceless.
In my career as a fiction writer, I experience the fundamental attribution error in this way: After a reading (which in itself is a debatable undertaking), the first question always, really always, is: “What part of your novel is autobiographical?” I often feel like thundering: “It’s not about me, damn it! It’s about the book, the text, the language, the credibility of the story!” But unfortunately my upbringing allows such outbursts only rarely.
We shouldn’t judge those guilty of the fundamental attribution error too harshly. Our preoccupation with other people stems from our evolutionary past: Belonging to a group was necessary for survival. Reproduction, defense, and hunting large animals—all these were impossible tasks for individuals to achieve alone. Banishment meant certain death, and those who opted for the solitary life—of which there were surely a few—fared no better and disappeared from the gene pool. In short, our lives depended on and revolved around others, which explains why we are so obsessed with our fellow humans today. The result of this infatuation is that we spend about 90 percent of our time thinking about other people and dedicate just 10 percent to assessing other factors and contexts.
In conclusion: As much as we are fascinated with the spectacle of life, the people onstage are not perfect, self-governed individuals. Instead, they tumble from situation to situation. If you want to understand the current play—really understand it—then forget about the performers. Pay close attention to the dance of influences to which the actors are subjected.