We all like to be able to better understand and explain the world around us, especially when times are difficult, threatening or in some other fashion profoundly unsettling. Recent deadly shooting incidents between police officers and young Black men and the subsequent public protests raise troubling questions in our minds whether we are Black, White, police or civilian. We look around us for the reasons that will help us to understand events, protect ourselves, punish culprits and “prevent this sort of thing from happening again.” In this process, we often move quickly to assign or attribute blame.
Infrequently do we start this problem solving process by attributing the cause of the situation to a factor internal to ourselves. For example, the police do not start out trying to understand an incident like the shooting of Michael Brown by declaring that a primary reason for the incident was a negative attitude toward Black male youth in general on the part of police in general (or the particular officer/s involved). The police do not attribute their action to, what social psychologists call “the internal disposition” or moral character of the involved officer/s. Rather, the tendency is to point to some aspect of the external situation for an explanation. In this circumstance, the police are most likely to point to the situation in which the officer/s find/found themselves.
Not only will the police tend to explain the incident by focusing on situational considerations to characterize their actions but also they will tend to focus on the internal disposition or character of the person who was shot, in this case Michael Brown et al. to bolster their argument.
Police are not unique in explaining contentious events in this way. We all have a tendency to do this. This very human tendency is so ubiquitous that social psychology even has a name for it: the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias. Simply put, the error is to blame personal flaws in others when accounting for their behavior while explaining our own behavior in terms of situational factors rather than any personal internal flaw.
Consequently, just as police will focus on justifying situational factors in explaining their behavior, those affected by that behavior will likely attribute the lion’s share of the blame to the internal disposition of the officer/s rather than any situational factor. Individual racism, cowardice, fear and fury will be the sort of language used most frequently.
Community or societal failure to realize our natural tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can lead to a vicious cycle of FAE upon FAE until groups of similar people no longer consider varying life situations at all and simply attribute all behavior to the internal dispositions of the members of a particular group. All Black men become shiftless and criminal. All policemen/women become rigid, violent bullies. All poor people become lazy social leeches. All rich people become greedy and uncaring. All intellectuals irrelevant and all who care impractical. Et cetera, et cetera in an ever descending vortex of social disintegration and devolution.
Not a pretty picture of the human condition or early 21st Century America. But, this is where we might be and that we got here by reflexively blaming “the other guy.” Perhaps, there is a note of hope in this latter, simple realization. If we got here by blaming the “other,” perhaps the hope lies in the realization that there really are no “others” per se only others-like-ourselves.