Friday, November 15, 2013

Trying to Make Sense of Events

Human beings have a natural desire to make sense out of their otherwise chaotic world. One of the tools we use is attribution. Attribution is a mental process we use to assign causation factors to events and/or behaviors that we witness. We want to know why something happens and if we don't get a direct answer, then we come up with one.

Internal attribution: otherwise known as a dispositional attribution; purports that the cause behind a behavior or event is due to some personal qualification of the individual involved. For example, "Carl got a promotion because he is a dedicated hard worker who deserved the recognition." Or, "Pete got into a car wreck because he's a horrible driver and didn't pay attention to the road." In both instances, we are assuming that the individual is to "blame" for the resulting events.

External attribution: otherwise known as a situational attribution; proposes that the cause behind a behavior or event is due to some factor (usually environmental) outside of the direct control of the individual involved. For example: "Mrs. Petrov got lucky when her lottery numbers came up. She didn't really deserve the money." Or, "Amanda got into a car accident because her brakes failed (or the road was slippery)." In these instances, we assume that the individual had very little control over the results and should not be blamed or praised for their turn of fortune, as they had nothing to do with it.

Fundamental Attribution Error: making attributions that help us maintain the idea that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people" so that we can keep our ego integrity intact. Unfortunately, most general psychology textbooks only include half of the full fundamental attribution error. Even educational videos on the subject are missing part of the story. Here is the way the error works in whole.
  • For positive events (promotions, winnings, etc.), we tend to make an internal attribution for ourselves (sometimes for close personal relations that we like, such as family and friends) and external attributions for others. For example: if you and a coworker both received a raise, you might--using the fundamental attribution error--assume that you got the promotion because you deserved it for all your hard work, but your coworker (especially if you don't like them) was in the right place at the right time (slept their way to the top, was just lucky, etc.), and didn't really get it for their merit because you don't think they really had any. Your straight As came from you studying your days and nights away instead of having fun. That other kid's As came because the teacher is friends with his parents.
  • For negative events (disasters, loss, accidents, etc.), we tend to make an external attribution for ourselves and the people we like and internal attributions for others. For example: if a hurricane knocked out your house, it was a freak accident of nature, an act of God that had nothing to do with you. However, if your annoying neighbor's house was hit by the hurricane, you may infer that he/she was a wicked person being punished for their wrongful ways of life. Your car accident was caused by an obstruction in the road--you didn't see the stop sign because a tree branch was in the way. That other guy's accident was due to him being a drunk who was too stupid to pay attention to what he was doing.
Defensive Attribution: blaming the victim. This is actually another illustration of the fundamental attribution error--the negative events half. We have a great tendency to blame a victim for the crimes committed against him/her. The majority of the time, when a person is raped (and yes, men can be rape victims and women can be rapists) we like to ask if they might not have done something to provoke it. Maybe she was wearing provocative clothing. Maybe he was "asking for it" by leading the other person to believe that he really "wanted" it. Why do we do this? Again, we have a basic need to keep our ideas of the universe intact, even if they border on the delusional. We want to believe that bad things happen to bad people. We want to believe that we are good people. Therefore, we could not possibly be a victim because that would mean we are bad people and we know that's not the case. As a result, we want to believe that the victim must have done something bad to bring about their circumstances. Otherwise, our simplistic causal view of the universe makes no sense and we have to think too hard about real causes of behaviors and events.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating this fundamental attribution error, nor am I trying to insinuate that people use it all the time. It is called "fundamental" because it is almost instinctive in nature and almost every person who has ever witnessed a crying child, yelling parent, slow or fast driver, annoying customer or cashier, has at one point in time applied it. We know we are unique and special as individuals and the best way to keep that in our minds is to recognize others as being similar to the average crowd member. Research over the years has shown that some people are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error more often (individualistic cultures, older individuals, for example) and some people are less inclined to use it because they have a tendency to think differently (collectivist cultures, individuals who tend to take extra time before making judgments or who have experienced the same events themselves, for example).

The best way to break out of the fundamental attribution error is to take the time to hypothesis the possible explanations for events. For example, the next time you see a kid crying in a store, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are a spoiled brat or the parents are awful people, try to think about why the kid might be crying. Maybe it's been a really long day and they need a nap. Maybe mom or dad is stressed and tired and zoned out, so after trying to get their attention for the past 10 minutes the kid finally started crying because they didn't know what else to do. Maybe the kid was hurt in some way that you couldn't see. When you take time to try to understand other people and make environmental observations, you are less likely to make the fundamental attribution error for either the positive or negative events. But that's the key there: it takes effort to break out of those patterns.