Fundamental Attribution Error and Harm Reduction Theater

‘The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health’

Source: ClassDojo app takes mindfulness to scale in public education | code acts in education

Mindfulness matters, but make no mistake: Corporations are co-opting the idea to disguise the ways they kill us

Yet, individualized mindfulness programs pay virtually no attention to how stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives. Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer argue in “The Wellness Syndrome” that the mindfulness movement exemplifies an ideological shift, which turns an obsessive focus on wellness and happiness into a moral imperative. This “biomorality” urges the individual to find responsibility via the “right” life choices-whether through exercise, food, or meditation-to optimize the self.

Source: Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less | Salon.com

Consider “fundamental attribution error” when evaluating mindset marketing like mindfulness, grit, growth mindset, etc.

The notion that each of us isn’t entirely the master of his own fate can be awfully hard to accept. It’s quite common to attribute to an individual’s personality or character what is actually a function of the social environment—so common, in fact, that psychologists have dubbed this the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a bias that may be particularly prevalent in our society, where individualism is both a descriptive reality and a cherished ideal. We Americans stubbornly resist the possibility that what we do is profoundly shaped by policies, norms, systems, and other structural realities. We prefer to believe that people who commit crimes are morally deficient, that the have-nots in our midst are lazy (or at least insufficiently resourceful), that overweight people simply lack the willpower to stop eating, and so on.81 If only all those folks would just exercise a little personal responsibility, a bit more self-control!

The Fundamental Attribution Error is painfully pervasive when the conversation turns to academic failure. Driving Duckworth and Seligman’s study of student performance was their belief that underachievement isn’t explained by structural factors—social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted, it should be attributed to the students themselves, and specifically to their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

When students are tripped up by challenges, they may respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out. Often, however, they do so not because of a defect in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because of structural factors.

Source: Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 170). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Lee Ross defined FAE as a tendency for people, when attributing the causes of behavior, “to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behaviour”. That’s very aligned with neurodiversity and the social model of disability. It’s at the heart of what I go on about with equity literacy, structural ideology vs. deficit ideology, designing for the edges, and changing our framing.

American culture and education are vast engines of FAE. Special Education is a gauntlet of FAE attitudes. Our family gets tired of wading through bad framing.

Compulsory, top-down mindfulness (and mindset marketing more generally) is too often used to situate structural problems within individuals while “disguising the ways they kill us.” It contributes to the gauntlet.

This is harm reduction theater. Practicing pluralism, for me, for now, means triage and harm reduction. Harm reduction theater wastes resources and bikesheds deficit ideology instead of embracing equity and structural ideology.

Recognize and prioritize minority stress.

As we come to understand depression in the transgender community more accurately, it’s become clear that the major cause is what’s referred to as “minority stress;” that is, “stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.”

Source: When Worlds Collide – Mental Illness Within the Trans Community – Lionheart

Why are there greater mental health stresses on autistic people from gender-minority groups? To quote from the research paper,

“The increased rates of mental health problems in these minority populations are often a consequence of the stigma and marginalisation attached to living outside mainstream sociocultural norms (Meyer 2003). This stigma can lead to what Meyer (2003) refers to as ‘minority stress’. This stress could come from external adverse events, which among other forms of victimization could include verbal abuse, acts of violence, sexual assault by a known or unknown person, reduced opportunities for employment and medical care, and harassment from persons in positions of authority (Sandfort et al. 2007).”

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Transgender and Avoiding Tragedy

We’re awash in behaviorism and mindset marketing that directs thinking away from systems and toward individuals, individuals who are structurally stressed.

Design is tested at the edges, and you need structural ideology to do something about it.

Corporate and ed-tech mindfulness aren’t structural or equity literate. When you aren’t equity literate, you risk engaging in harm reduction theater. When you aren’t equity literate, you fail at triage and harm reduction.

Investment in universal mindfulness training in the schools is unlikely to yield measurable, socially significant results, but will serve to divert resources from schoolchildren more urgently in need of effective intervention and support.

Mindfulness Nation is another example of delivery of low intensity services to mostly low risk persons to the detriment of those in greatest and most urgent need.

Those many fewer students in need more timely, intensive, and tailored services are left underserved. Their presence is ignored or, worse, invoked to justify the delivery of services to the larger group, with the needy students not benefiting.

Source: Unintended effects of mindfulness for children | Mind the Brain

Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

There is no path to inclusive design that does not involve direct confrontation with injustice. “If a direct confrontation of injustice is missing from our strategies or initiatives or movements, that means we are recreating the conditions we’re pretending to want to destroy.Structural ideology-an ideology shared by intersectionality, the social mode of disability, and design for real life-is necessary to good design.

Source: Design is Tested at the Edges: Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life – Ryan Boren

Education workers, healthcare workers, coworkers, everyone: We need you to check your FAE. We need you to confront injustice. Are you practicing harm reduction theater? Are you contributing to the gauntlet while telling us it’s good for us?

DEI, Belonging, and Values Fit in the Workplace

The latest episode of Distributed interviews Sid Sijbrandij, Co-founder and CEO of GitLab. The episode prompted me to revisit the comprehensive GitLab Values page. There’s lots of good stuff in here.

Diversity, inclusion and belonging are fundamental to the success of GitLab. We aim to make a significant impact in our efforts to foster an environment where everyone can thrive. We are designing a multidimensional approach to ensure that GitLab is a place where people from every background and circumstance feel like they belong and can contribute. We actively chose to build and institutionalize a culture that is inclusive and supports all team members equally in the process of achieving their professional goals. We hire globally and encourage hiring in a diverse set of countries. We work to make everyone feel welcome and to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities and nationalities in our community and company.

We demonstrate diversity, inclusion and belongings when we foster an environment where everyone can thrive and ensuring that GitLab is a place where people from every background and circumstance feel like they belong and can contribute.

Source: GitLab Values | GitLab

I like the addition of belonging to DEI. That’s an important part of Employee Resource Groups: fostering belonging. Belonging helps address the leaky pipeline, and hiring for values fit instead of culture fit helps address getting in the pipeline in the first place.

Culture fit is a bad excuse

We don’t hire based on culture or select candidates because we’d like to have a drink with them. We hire and reward team members based on our shared values as detailed on this page. We want a values fit, not a culture fit. We want cultural diversity instead of cultural conformity, such as a brogrammer atmosphere. Said differently: “culture add” > “culture fit” or “hire for culture contribution” since our mission is that everyone can contribute.

Source: GitLab Values | GitLab

I love the rule-of-thumb: culture add > culture fit. I might add it to my old, neglected list of rules of thumb for human systems. Changing the framing from fit to add better includes neurodivergent people.

Speaking of neurodivergent people, the page has a section on neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a type of diversity that includes: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, cognitive impairment, and other styles of neurodivergent functioning. While neurodivergent individuals often bring unique skills and abilitieswhich can be harnessed for competitive advantage in many fields including cybersecurity, neurodivergent individuals are often discriminated against, and sometimes have trouble making it through traditional hiring processes. These individuals should be able to contribute as GitLab team members. The handbook, values, strategy, and interviewing process should never discriminate against the neurodivergent.


Source: GitLab Values | GitLab

“The handbook, values, strategy, and interviewing process should never discriminate against the neurodivergent.”

Wow, it sure feels good to read that so plainly written. Here’s some previous writing of mine to help avoid discriminating against neurominorities at work and, instead, create belonging.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines: A Heart-warming Raptor Bash for Neurodivergent Family

I was gonna put off watching “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” because I’m not in a mood for anything remotely apocalyptic, but then I saw this tweet from AutisticSciencePerson:

I could really use a dose of good autism representation after a terrible acceptance month, so I watched it, and then I re-watched it, and now I enthusiastically cosign.

Maybe someday we’ll get to where we can s/weird/neurodivergent/ in popular media and do so compassionately and authentically, laughing at the deficits of our spiky profiles while celebrating our strengths and whole selves.

Though we don’t get to hear the word autistic aloud, leaving the family’s neurodivergence to headcanon, there’s some great autism rep: stims, special interests, monotropism, hyperfocus, meltdowns, autistic empathy, and more.

I found the following scenes very relatable to neurodivergent family and life (mildly spoiler-ish):

“Hi. Would you like to talk to me about dinosaurs?”

“…we can make ten seconds of unobstructed family eye contact.” [straining]

“After all these years, I’m finally gonna meet my people.”

“These dinosaurs are inaccurate!”

“Check out this pencil topper.” [romantic music plays]

“What would a functional family do right now?”

“Mitchell family on three! Three.”

“Zebulon, scan those people for flaws.”

“Guys, can’t we all just be terrified together as a family.”

“We’re here because we don’t think like normal people.”

“The Mitchells have always been weird, and that’s what makes us great.”

“Don’t hide your feelings, man. That’s no way to live.”

“Just look for anyone who can’t keep it together.”

“They’re pretending to be capable.”

“What kind of maniac has one of those in his pockets at all times? This kind of maniac.”

“Rick, Rick. Let’s not re-litigate this.”

“Sometimes you have to listen to long monologues about Triceratops migration…”

“If this obstinate man could change his programming, we decided we could change ours.”

“I wonder if you could come over and talk about dinosaurs casually sometime!”

“Don’t let the world make you normal.”

“Good luck finding your people.”

“You guys are my people.”

“Raptor bash. For life.”

Source: The Mitchells vs. The Machines — Netflix

This movie is a heart-warming raptor bash for neurodivergent family. Watch it, and then watch it again to appreciate all the queer and neurodivergent touches.