When I went out for the swim team, I got my ass handed to me. Don’t feel bad, my father reassured me. You’re at a genetic disadvantage. It made me feel better to know that it wasn’t my fault I sucked, it was my crappy DNA. Asians are good at math, not swimming. It’s nice to blame factors you can’t control.
When we use trait attribution, the genetic trait gets the blame as well as the credit.
The application form for the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowship states that they encourage women and minorities to apply. Throughout my graduate career, I wondered if my fellowship was awarded due to my gender. Does this mean I’m dumber than my peers? Maybe. Probably.
And did I only get into Stanford because I am a female engineer?
I applied for StartX and Y-Combinator, both of which express biases against solo founders. That’s fine, investors are allowed to use whatever criteria they choose. But the open admission of holding higher standards for singles encourages a trait-attribution mindset. Some call it pattern-matching, some call it profiling.
Sure, it is harder for a solo founder to start a company. It is also harder for a little Taiwanese kid to be an NBA player.
We can argue that Jeremy Lin is the exception and not the norm, just like Drew Houston was the exception and not the norm. But how many Asian kids were discouraged from even attempting to join their school basketball teams? How many potential rockstar founders begrudgingly took on a teammate in order to satisfy the cofounder requirement?
Attributing success or failure to extenuating factors discourages honest self-assessment. It never occurred to adolescent Elaine that maybe she sucked at swimming because she simply didn’t practice enough. It may not occur to women and minorities that they have succeeded on their own merits.