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by Ross Robertson

The Fundamental Attribution Error is an interesting thing. Briefly stated, it's the psychological tendency to see the actions of others as a reflection of their character, while we explain our own actions in terms of our circumstances. In the classic example, we see other bad drivers as assholes, but when we ourselves do similar things, we justify it as necessary, or maybe as an excusable and uncharacteristic moment of carelessness.

My own theory about why this happens is simple: we have a lot less data about others than we have about ourselves. In the case of another driver -- usually a stranger -- that incident is 100% of the data we have about them, so that's all we have to assess their character. When we are guilty of the exact same thing, we can much more readily excuse ourselves as long as we know it's not something we normally do. It's a minuscule percentage of our lifetime. The phrase "Walk a mile in my shoes" suggests that we really need to spend time living in the context of another human being before we are in a position to judge their character.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a well-known psychological concept. I would extend the notion and assert that there are more general attribution errors that we need to guard against in all aspects of our lives.

In aikido, for example, we may be asked to visualize a certain thing or to hold certain beliefs. When such recommendations come from a trusted teacher or senior, we do well to follow their example. In so doing, more often than not, we achieve a greater degree of success than if we ignore their instruction.

This may seem harmless. After all, the proof is in the pudding. If we're getting closer to the results we want, we should be happy to keep repeating the process just as we learned it. Or, as a wise man once said, "He who hath the how is heedless of the why." But we need the "why" if we are going to have depth of understanding. And we need depth of understanding if we are going to have reliable action.

The question of why something works is central to true understanding. In practicing the unbendable arm, for instance, I might be told to imagine water flowing vigorously through a hose. I might be told that my arm is that hose, and that the water is my "ki." After some false starts, I begin to get the hang of it, and now I'm pretty good at it.

So now I go show off to others, and maybe even start to teach it. And if questioned on why it works, I can say (wrongly) with confidence "Because of my ki." Or, I might say it worked because of the this particular visualization.

And that's an example of a more general attribution error. In fact, I might have no idea whatsoever why it works. To say that the visualization was helpful in realizing a goal is probably truthful. But to say that success was because of the visualization, or because of my "ki," requires a much higher burden of proof.

I occasionally encounter instructors who go to lengths to describe what sort of intent or attitude or mindset must be adhered to in order to achieve their level of proficiency. Usually these are people quite skilled in what they do, and they are utterly sincere in their desire to transmit their knowledge faithfully and honestly. Yet I find myself thinking that if I have to enter into their particular emotional state, reliably and in a crisis, then I'm doomed.

No doubt calmness and relaxation are important. I advocate for these tirelessly and I believe the benefits are demonstrable. At the same time, I have found it more useful to find out exactly what this calmness and relaxation does for us mechanically. I want to know at the most basic structural level what is absolutely necessary for success in a given action, so that many other things can go wrong but the act is still effective. I want -- and I want for my students -- something that can still work even in a blind panic.

To bring this back around to the attribution discussion, what I seek are instructions that are as incontrovertible as possible. They need to be clearly demonstrable and easily reproducible by any reasonably intelligent person with at least average coordination. I want to be able to say this is why this works, and know that "this" is pretty hard to argue with. Not because it's dogma, but because it's logically necessary.

If relaxation helps to avoid collisions, for example, then collision detection and avoidance has primacy, and relaxation is secondary. I find it much more useful and truthful to tell my students that they are colliding with their partner here, or they're colliding with themselves there. You can tense up all you want so long as you don't collide.

I've tried, and I simply can't always manifest a loving intent and a joyous heart. It's great when I can, and things usually do go better when I can, but I just can't always. Despite this, I still want my actions to be benign even if I rage in my heart. Find me someone who can teach me those actions and I will follow them around like a puppy. When the mechanics of benign action are understandable and reproducible, specific emotions become secondary.

So let's be careful of our attributions. Let's try to understand as deeply as possible why something works, and not attribute it to something auxiliary, even if relevant. If something is working well, keep doing whatever makes it work well, but don't credit the success to something that might actually be obscuring the deeper, more central truth.

Most of our misattributions are so common and innocuous that they are invisible. That's part of what makes them so insidious. At their worst, they are the root of all our superstitions and the cause for all our holy wars. They breed bigotry and paranoia and are the hallmark of an undisciplined mind. Work to eliminate them in your training, and gradually from the rest of your life.

Let me say again: Eliminate all that is unnecessary. Once this can be accomplished, restore the merely useful.

Just don't confuse the two.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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