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?

A Credo for Support: Respecting Autonomy in a Society of Interdependence and Care

Do Not try to modify my behaviour.

Be still & listen. What you define as inappropriate

may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can.

Do Not see me as your client. I am your fellow citizen.

See me as your neighbour. Remember, none of us can be self-sufficient.

Do Not try to control me. I have a right to my power as a person. What you call non-compliance or manipulation may actually be the only way I can exert some control over my life.

Do Not work on me. Work with me.

Source: A Credo for Support

Via: Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

This credo is a beautiful recipe for respecting autonomy in a framework of interdependence and care. I’m going to share it with the educators and caregivers that work with our family.

The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control. These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”

Source: Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

Previously,

Behaviorism: Measuring the Surface, Badly

Behaviorism only looks at observable behavior which can be measured. It doesn’t take into account thoughts, genetics, anxiety, trauma, health, or emotions because those things cannot be measured.

Source: Not an Autism Mom’s Thoughts on ABA: Part One » NeuroClastic

Ultimately behaviorism provides a simplistic lens that can’t see beyond itself.

Why is the doctrine of behaviorism still being used, at all?

How can ABA be the gold-standard for autism when it ignores everything we know about autism?

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Assuming for the sake of argument that ABA is effective at changing people’s behavior, it either does so via changing their underlying thought structures or values (“deep change”), or it does not (“superficial change”). If ABA is “successful” by way of deep change, then ABA violates autonomy insofar as it coercively closes off certain paths of identity formation. If ABA is “successful” by way of superficial change, then ABA violates autonomy by coercively modifying children’s patterns of behavior to be misaligned with their preferences, passions, and pursuits. Such superficial change is a pervasive form of interference that compromises children’s present and future autonomy.

Source: Project MUSE – Ethical Concerns with Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism Spectrum “Disorder”

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

But the enduring lesson for educators isn’t just that “positive reinforcement” turns out to be anything but positive. It also concerns the conceptual dead-end of behaviorism more generally. Every day, and with every child, we need to keep in mind that behaviors are just the protruding tip of the proverbial iceberg. What matters more than “What?” or “How much?” is “How come?”

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

The underpinnings of that ideology include: a focus only on observable behaviors that can be quantified, a reduction of wholes to parts, the assumption that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement, and the creation of methods for selectively reinforcing whichever behaviors are preferred by the person with the power. Behaviorists ignore, or actively dismiss, subjective experience – the perceptions, needs, values, and complex motives of the human beings who engage in behaviors.

The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control. These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”

It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it.

Source: Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

PBIS.org focuses only on surface behavior, what one can observe. Whether this is due to lack of understanding of the complexity or an intentional omission is unknown. The focus on surface behavior, without seeming to understand or be concerned about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.

The documents on PBIS.org imply that all behavior is willful. There is no acknowledgement in the PBIS.org literature that behaviors can be stress responses (fight-flight-freeze responses). This is a profound omission that does great harm to children whose brains and bodies have highly sensitive neuroceptionof danger. To be punished for a stress response is harmful and traumatic.

The second concern about teaching replacement behaviors goes back to the lack of distinction between willful behaviors and stress behaviors. Teaching replacement behaviors is not possible for stress responses since they are automatic responses that occur beneath the level of conscious thought.

Source: The problem with behaviorism – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Behaviorism and ABA are superficial, misguided, and abusive. That the folks most able to feel the wrongness of behaviorism are the ones most subjected to it is immensely cruel.

If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

Previously,