Friday, December 10, 2004

The Fundamentals of Attribution

One of the hooks of Rush Limbaugh's radio show is his supposed ability to reveal the true character of the liberal. As amusing as these conclusions are, I'm going to stay away from specifics. Instead, I'm simply going to address the general formula: liberals do X because they are Y. In this context, X is any undesirable behavior or policy endorsement and Y is any of a host of negative personal characteristics (arrogance, elitism, phoniness, etc.). It's a beautifully simple system for slamming the opposition, it's appliable to nearly any imaginable situation, and his audience eats it up. It's no wonder he breaks this tool out of his rhetorical toolbox every day.

It's almost enough to convince me that he understands Attribution Theory. The problem is that not enough of the rest of us do. Let's see if we can change that.

As social animals, human beings are constantly observing the behavior of those around us. One of the most important aspects of this observation is the evaluation of motive. This evaluation is instrumental as we attempt to determine how to appropriately distribute our trusts. Thus, the phenomenon is an unavoidable consequence of social interdependence. Now, what is interesting about this process is that motivations have a tendency to break down into two main categories: dispositional and situational. In other words, behavior can be explained by character or by circumstance.

Unfortunately, it is rarely possible to know with any degree of certainty which of these two attributional categories controls in any situation. This can be incredibly problematic because our opinion of an individual can radically change depending upon how we categorize his motivation. To see this in action, let's look at a hypothetical situation:

Imagine you work in a warehouse. One day, you are on the floor peacefully going about your duties. A coworker is walking by. Suddenly, just as he reaches you, he gives you a hard shove, propelling you several feet away and knocking you to the floor. At this point, you are most likely to conclude that your coworker is a dangerous asshole (dispositional attribution). However, in the next moment, a large and heavy box slams to the floor right where you had been standing, apparently fallen from its perch high above. Now, realizing that your coworker just saved you from serious injury or death, you probably conclude that your coworker is a quick thinking Samaritan (situational attribution).

As we can see, the switch from dispositional to situational attribution transforms the character of our coworker from bully to hero. Pretty dramatic, don't you think?

Of course, this example is pretty simplistic because, eventually, all the data that is required to make the correct evaluation is available to us. In the real world, this frequently is not the case. For example, when someone cuts you off on the highway, is it because he's dangerous and inconsiderate or is it because he's having a medical emergency that is compelling him to navigate aggressively. You'll never know enough about his situation to make an accurate determination.

So, what happens in a situation like this? Well, as it turns out, we tend to demonstrate a bias toward dispositional attribution. This is what is known as the fundamental attribution error. If what we know about a situation fails to explain a behavior, we tend to attribute the behavior to the character of the individual.

Armed with this information, let's take another look at Rush: liberals do X because they are Y. Clearly, this is dispositional attribution. The thing is Rush never examines situational factors. It's possible that dispositional attribution is correct, but context almost always enlightens our understanding of a situation (something Rush clearly knows, since whenever a particularly ugly quote of his boils to the surface he claims that it was taken out of context). Thus, his listeners are extremely vulnerable to making fundamental attribution errors.

Rush is by no means alone in exploiting this tendency of ours to make dispositional attributions. Politicians and pundits of all stripes are guilty of similar rhetoric. It's too easy and too powerful a technique to abandon. It's not going away anytime soon. But, it might become just a little less effective if we all become a little more aware.

If you're interested in learning more about Fritz Heider's Attribution Theory, click here.
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