American Society & the Fundamental Attribution Error

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Did you ever overhear a conversation between two people discussing the ills our our society that went something like this?:

“Did you hear?”


“They want to raise the minimum wage again.  Small business people are going to suffer and pass all the cost along to you and me!!”

“I know but people have to eat and right now you can’t make a living wage even if you have two minimum wage jobs.”

“They don’t have to work those minimum wage jobs.  They are just to lazy to work hard and get something better.  They have a choice don’t they? Besides look at how many kids they have and none of them with the same father!  They are so irresponsible that they have kids they can’t afford and expect the rest of us to pick up the tab!”

“But, the deck is stack against most of these people.  They are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder and the way our society works it is very difficult for many to even see a way out of the drudgery of their lives.  It’s sad and depressing.  As a society we need to do more to help those with the least among us.”

No way!  This is a matter of personal responsibility and accountability.  There is no such thing as a free ride.  These people simply make bad choices and are too lazy to earn a better living.  They would rather sit around drinking, doing drugs and collecting!”

The conversation sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it?  Most of us have taken either  the blue or green side at one time or another in our lives.  The speaker in blue tends to attribute the economic state of the poor to something in the character or traits of the poor person:  they are lazy, irresponsible and make bad choices.  The speaker in green tends to see the condition of the poor as a function less of their character and more of the social situation which oppresses them.

The person taking the blue position and attributing the condition of the poor to individual internal disposition or character trait is making what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error; i.e., attributing too much weight to individual traits and character and not enough weight to the social situation in which people find themselves and, in this way, blaming the poor internal disposition of the poor for their being poor. We tend to reverse this process for the rich.  In the end, many think, each category, rich and poor get what they deserve, more or less .

Individualistic cultures like the United States tend to make this error more readily that do more collectivist societies.  Across the political spectrum, conservatives make the fundamental attribution error more readily than liberals while the most liberal among us may miss those aspects of social problems which are in fact grounded in the internal disposition of others.

On balance, at least in the West, we have had a significant tendency to blame the “have nots” for not having the internal disposition necessary for success and to laud the “haves” for their supposed strength of character and  internal disposition in favor of hard work.  Assistance to the poor and least advantaged among us is even argued to be an encouragement to further indulge the natural disposition to sloth and debauchery of the poor, while aid to rich, usually in the form of tax breaks, is thought to be providing additional resources to those with the moral character to make the best use of it.

Maintenance and even re-enforcement of the fundamental attribution error presents a major impediment to the resolution of complex social problems which  only worsens as economic disparity increases.  The rich will need more aid and the poor less, as we continue to tilt with the wrong enemy.  As Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s not the people. It’s the situation, stupid.”

Notice that simply by adding the word “stupid” to the sentence above,  I have committed the fundamental attribution error myself.  It is way to easy and natural a sin to commit and should have be included in any list of deadly sins.  Like any sin, this sin too must be repented of by creating a new mental situation in which we forgive ourselves our missteps, humble ourselves before the complexities of existence  and open ourselves to a more profound realization of how each of our life situations, and the relationships we have in those situations, impact both who we are in any given moment and who we, as a people, will become in all the moments to come.

A short graphical summary of the attribution error.

A simple example from a work situation.

Dialogue & Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Society (Part 2)

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2This is the second part of a two part essay on issues related to dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.  Part I made the point that in order for real dialogue to take place between parties, those parties must be able to communicate clearly, understand one another and at least agree on the existence of the first principles that ground their view of reality.  Dialogue between believers and nonbelievers in “god” is problematic because nonbelievers do not think that “god” is anything more than an idea that some people have and in that sense does not exist and cannot serve as a referent in an argument.  Part 1 concluded with the idea that, perhaps the use of a thought experiment, following the model of the philosopher John Rawls, could serve to circumvent the first principles problem between those who believe and those who do not and allow for a continuation of meaningful dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.

A thought experiment is the use of  imagination to investigate the nature of things. In a thought experiment, a person visualizes a situation with specific conditions, carries out an operation within the visualization, notices what happens or is what most likely to happen and then draws a conclusion from which further extrapolations are possible. One of the most famous thought experiments of all time was performed by Einstein who used his imagination and  “pursued a beam of light” to the discovery of the theory of general relativity.  The History of Science is replete with examples of thought experiments.  Click here to see some amusing illustrations.

The late political philosopher John Rawls used the device of an extended thought experiment to develop a theory of the nature of justice that he thought could be assented to in a pluralistic society (or world) where differing languages, cultures, belief systems and values made consensus on first principles on which to ground social dialogue difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. 

Rawls proposed the following thought experiment:

Imagine a condition in which human beings were brought together under what he called a “veil of ignorance” and given the task of deciding what basic rules should govern human social interaction and institutions in order, following the thinking of John Locke, that as free agents we be able both to have liberty and live together in harmony.  The “veil of ignorance” he proposed was the hypothetical situation in which all parties knew that social and personal inequalities existed but not which individual people or groups were advantaged or disadvantaged; i.e., a state where we knew that some people would be smarter than others, have more money or other resources than others, be more attractive or stronger than others etc. etc. but NOT which one of us was the stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, healthier or unhealthier.  We would not even know if we were a believer or not.

Assuming our hypothetical group accepted the task of answering the question of how our life as human beings should be arranged, Rawls argues that the first thing the group would do is to decide how to deal with fact that the group knew some members were advantaged and some disadvantaged but not who was in which category.  He concludes that the first rule the group would establish is one that establishes that whatever rules they arrive at cannot disadvantage the least advantaged in the group. Rawls continues that the first rule this hypothetical group would establish was that any rule they created could not adversely impact the liberty of the least advantaged among them.  

Or as Rawls put it more formally:  

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Rawls calls this the first principle of justice.  A first principle arrived at in this way would be one that would be agreed to by both the believer and nonbeliever.  Under the “veil of ignorance” both believer and nonbeliever (since they did not who was who) would have to agree on a first principle which left either option (belief or non-belief) open and unconstrained.

Rawls moves on from the formation of this first principle to extrapolate a more elaborate theory of social justice in which the disadvantaged are always protected to one degree or another from being disadvantaged further by laws and social regulations. Space does not permit a full examination of Rawls and  his contractarian theory of justice. ( Click here for a summary of this 1971 publication.)  Suffice to say, that it is the use of a thought experiment and the “veil of ignorance” device that enables Rawls to circumvent the actual variations within the human family in reaching a formulation of a first principle that would likely be agreed upon by all members of the human family under the conditions of the experiment.  It is an also an ingenious way to get at a philosophical version of the Golden Rule.

While thought experiments and veils of ignorance may not be the route to the solution of all complex ethical discussions in which the parties have incompatible first principles, they do offer one avenue that could be explored much more widely in order to preserve pluralism (an thus liberty) in our society.  Imagine the thought experiment/veil of ignorance technique applied to a hot button issues like gay/lesbian marriage or stem cell research.

All this is of importance only if we are interested in preserving pluralism and the liberty that it implies.  Some may feel that it is their duty to work against pluralism and that humankind would be better off were there no difference of opinion on a topic like “god.”  Believers and nonbelievers may feel that the only proper course is to eradicate the view of the other through conversion or other means.  The historical record is filled with failed attempts to achieve social harmony by eradicating difference.  Tolerance and the nurture of what might be called “positive pluralism” with devices like thought experiments hold more promise for harmonious existence than social stalemates or the use force–social, intellectual or military–to build consensus.  Enforced consensus is an oxymoron of the first order.

In the end, the maintenance of a positive pluralism requires all parties to step back from their own position, at least momentarily, to find a common first principle from which to begin any discussion.  Believers, nonbelievers and agnostics may not always need to be at loggerheads when it comes to debating ethical issues.  Thought experiments are just one among a variety of methods but they worked well for Galileo, Einstein and John Rawls and have it all over war, genocide and social disintegration.