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The Science of Super Bowl X

In 1976, the Dallas Cowboys took on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X. The game was remembered for being the most exciting of the first 10 Super Bowl games. But football fans weren’t the only ones who were tuned into that game. Back in the lab, psychological research was being conducted on fans of each team. Throughout the game, researchers were analyzing their opinions of the causes of each play – the good ones and the bad ones.

And they found an interesting pattern. When the fans' team did well, they attributed it to skill. When the other team did well, they attributed it to luck.

Behavioral scientists have continued to explore this duality of irrational perceptions we have about ourselves vs. the world. Science tells us that the brain is wired in such a way that makes us susceptible to some cognitive biases and natural reactions that prevent objectivity.

One of these biases is called fundamental attribution error and it applies to us as individuals as well as to our social groups. Also known as correspondence bias, it’s the brain’s tendency to place greater emphasis on situational factors when we make a mistake or fail in some way while attributing failure or mistakes to character or personality in others.

There is a wealth of research on fundamental attribution error as it perpetuates prejudice and stereotyping. Many studies show the same effects, but with nationalities or ethnicities instead of teams or smaller social units. When members of our group make a mistake it’s an accident or an anomaly, when members of another group do so, it’s so typical of them.

Unfortunately, fundamental attribution error is a natural tendency for the brain, so it happens to all of us. The best way to overcome this cognitive bias is to be aware of it and recognize it when it happens.


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