Science and Democracy

Causal Fundamentalism

I’d like to tack an addendum to that last post.

There’s a nice little term I recall from first year psychology, ‘The Fundamental Attribution Error’,  which marks the tendency for people to attribute causation and responsibility in very suspicious ways.

Example: say both you and some stranger in your class fail an exam. Why did he fail? Why did you fail? When we explain the failure of someone else we are much, much more likely to make an internal attribution. That is, we are likely to say that the person failed because he didn’t study enough or just weren’t smart enough. It’s his fault. But when we explain our own failures, the burden of responsibility magically shifts onto the environment: the room was too hot, there was that late-night call from a friend which made us lose sleep, the exam questions were poorly posed or unrepresentative of course material, etc. This asymmetry seems like it could be a result of a few things but the most obvious explanations involve (1) informational access and (2) motivated cognition.  In the case of (1) we could plausibly hold that this bias is the simple consequence of what we happen to know at a given time. We have access to all the details of our own lives and so a distributed, situational attribution is possible; we were there when that late night phone call came in. Conversely, we know little about the lives of others so, as a short hand, we attribute their failure internally. Of course, the implication here is that a true attribution in either case would involve a wide range of situational variables and that our current bias is because of our ignorance about the lives of others.

Interestingly, this attributional pattern somewhat reverses in the case of success rather than failure. Why did you succeed? Well, I’m pretty clever (internal). Why did they succeed? Well, the exam was pretty easy (situation). Could we explain this reversal by appealing only to (1), the lack of information? No, clearly not. We still have access to more information about our own situation but, instead of using it to explain our success, we make an internal attribution. The same reversal happens for our attributions about the other person. He succeeds and we now explain that success by the situation (the easy exam) rather than his (internal) ability. So instead of being the result of informational access (1), the obvious explanation for this pattern is (2), that we attribute causation – and responsibility – because we are motivated to do so; we pick the story we feel good about.

I want to be agnostic for the moment about whether we think these explanations are sound and instead give a couple of examples to show how this bias generalizes beyond  social psychology.

Firstly, and as concerned the previous post, genetic-behavioural explanations probably follow this pattern:

“Why is she so loving an affectionate?

It’s in her [internally attributable] genes; females are just more caring.

But why are you  so caring?

My parents raised me that way.”

The person whose behaviour we are explaining is more likely to get it attributed internally, and the likelihood of this happening probably increases along with our social distance from that person; men explaining women, whites explaining aboriginals. This could be because of both (1) a lack of information about their lives and (2) some less perceptible motivation to explain things in a way that justifies the beliefs we already hold about these groups.

This suggests a wider political analogy. Liberalism and neo-liberalism (that shibboleth of angry Marxists) are built around the sacraments of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘personal responsibility.’ I take these very seriously, but it’s worth pointing out that from a social-scientific point of view liberals are likely to explain things as the aggregation of individual choices – ‘the market’ being the very ideal.  That is, attributions are internal. This can often be informative but it’s not the only option. For their part, those angry Marxists would reject this kind of attribution, and instead talk of larger social categories like ‘class’, ’empire’, and ‘power relations.’ For them, individual and social behaviour is much more situational or contextual.

This point about leftist situational attributions is well shown by that angry Marxist Brecht in Mother Courage and Her Children. In the (palpitating) play, Brecht apparently casts aspersions on this liberal individualist vision which celebrates solitary choice-and-virtue by having each of Mother Courage’s children embody  a certain virtue – bravery, honesty, and some third one that’s eminently forgettable. As Mother Courage craftily adjusts her allegiances to whosoever is winning the Thirty Years War at the time, her children remain constant and virtuous. At the beginning of the play, each one of them is rewarded for this in some way or another but as the battle-lines and social context shift around them, each child ends up getting killed for some final expression of that virtue. Evidently, Brecht doesn’t have much patience for the internal attribution of choice or virtue; social change is explained by much larger forces in a much wider context.

So it looks like a wide range of fields have substantial discretion – and disagreement – about where causation gets attributed. The Fundamental Attribution Error is far from just social-psychological.

Now, I don’t know the history of the term itself, but it seems that by calling this bias ‘an error’ we are assuming that there is one true story about what causes what and that most of our attributions are just myopic and wrong. This much seems implied by saying that the attribution is a result of (1) limited information.

I want to raise suspicions about this conclusion. We could start doing this by pointing out that ‘attribution’ is a close linguistic cousin to ‘description’ and that the latter is ambivalent about truth. I could describe the faces on the subway as ‘petals on a wet, black bough’ or as ‘bottomless sinkholes for absorbing cultural refuse’ and neither would really be wrong. How we classify things is largely up to us; it depends what we’re trying to show (this generalizes: is a cluster of trees which shares a root system one organism or many organisms? The evolutionary biologist says ‘one’, the ecologist says ‘many’. They are each trying to show different things.) This minimalist relativistic point should be enough to show that our purposes matter an awful lot for our attributions and descriptions, and that these are not only meant to be expressions of some mute realm of facts.

This has fallout for our understanding of the purported error in all its many forms. If we think it really is an error – which I think we should – and we are also suspicious that it’s an error because of its failure to capture some fact of the matter about the way things are (soppingly pejorative) then why is it an error? How could it still be called ‘an error’ if it’s not because of a factual failure? Re-invoking the claim that our descriptions are somewhat purpose-relative, we can say it’s an error because our purposes are bad ones; it’s a moral error. Selectively attributing causation and responsibility as a way of confirming what we already want to believe is simply selfish and bad.

This doesn’t tell us what kind of attributions to make. It doesn’t tell us when people are acting as responsible agents or when they are victims of their situations; it doesn’t resolve the debate about the causal role of genes; it certainly doesn’t recommend that we be liberals or Marxists. What it does do is moralize a large part of what we probably thought were mere factual descriptions and thereby sensitizes us to the possibility that the attributions we are making may be informed in ways we think are bad. Maybe the direction this points us, like any other time we have to select and weigh values, is toward a focus on matters of inclusion and due process. That is, toward democratized causal attributions.



Says Mother Courage about a commander who is searching for brave soldiers: “he must be a very bad commander….because he needs brave soldiers, that’s why. If his plan of campaign was any good, why would he need brave soldiers, wouldn’t plain, ordinary soldiers do? Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.”


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