Surowiecki on “fatal flaws”

Rob May spots a nice article by James Surowicki: The Fatal-Flaw Myth. Snippet:

People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called “the fundamental attribution error”-the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics even when context is overwhelmingly important.

Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist.

4 thoughts on “Surowiecki on “fatal flaws”

  1. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Tim. I hear where you’re coming from and I think there are some nuances here.

    I don’t think Surowiecki advocates putting stock in luck, but does suggest we underplay the importance of contextual factors, as opposed to individual character or effort, in events.

    There does appear to be some fairly objective evidence to support the notion of the fundamental attribution error. Whatever your individual prowess, it does seem in general that humans deceive themselves about the power of individual character over circumstance. The basketball example seems a good illustration of this.

    Perhaps his use of the word “luck” here is distracting. It might be better to talk about “broader contextual factors”… but that doesn’t trip of the tongue so well!

  2. Ian Glendinning

    Hi Johnnie, it is a good article.

    The volte-face in attrbuting the fortunes of Airbus is good illustration of the drivers behind why people feel compelled to attribute (politically) convenient causes.

    I see this at so many levels in different situations … it’s a confusion between “explanation” which is often complex and contextual and “cause” which is really just like short-hand.

    Leads to the pejorative use of “luck” as somehow implying the avoidance of responsibility … a crutch or excuse rather than a good solid reason … not the sort of thing macho decisive people would do, clearly 🙂

    Yes, people can influence their context and “make their own luck”, but at the end of the day (did I really say that) emergent situations are always a mix of bottom-up causation and top-down influence. The patterns that repeat, people call “the reason” for the outcome … but that’s really just damn lies and statistics. Schoolboy error in-built in our reasoning culture.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    I concur with the notion that the role of luck and context is dramatically undervalued. I don’t mean to underestimate Tim’s focus on talent and effort…of course they’re crucial…but luck (Fortuna, to the Romans) is always in the mix. American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was purported to have said: “I’m a very lucky person. Usually, I find that I get lucky in the library at about 3 AM.”

    See Woody Allen’s recent film, “Match Point” for a wonderful treatment of this issue, beautifully filmed in London.


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