Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Fundamental Attribution Error,

sometimes known as the FAE, is a major concept in sociology and (I'm told*) behavioral economics.

It goes about like this: we human beings like to attribute a lot of things to disposition. We talk about bad apples, bad seeds, about what and who we are. The FAE says this is an error in attribution; that many of the things we attribute to our nature are actually a function of our circumstances.

There's a startling lot of evidence for this theory, both in controlled situations and not. The Stanford Prison Experiment** was sort of the landmark beginning, but it's results have been echoed repeatedly, twice using hospital or mental hospital scenarios and once as a test run (using ordinary citizens) of a county jail. In all cases, the normal inmates began exhibiting the characteristics one would expect of them if they were criminal or mentally ill. In all cases, there were participants ("normal" people)who exhibited symptoms of severe psychological duress.

On top of this, we have a plethora of evidence suggesting that we human beings are incredibly responsive to authority--whether or not that authority is reflecting the values we, individually, hold. In the Millgram Obedience studies it was discovered that almost all participants were willing to administer apparently lethal electric shocks to a random stranger if assured by a "scientist" in a lab coat that
a) they caused no lasting damage,
b) they "must" go on, and
c) that they had no responsibility for their actions--the experimenters would take all responsibility.

Milgram himself ran several variations of the study, and plenty of less extreme but equally disturbing studies have come in it's wake. For example, Nurses, when asked, said that if a doctor told them to administer two or three times the recommended dose of a medication, they would refuse--but when put to the test in a working situation, virtually all complied. Outside the "laboratory," we have everything from strip search scams to concentration camps, which had to be staffed, built, and maintained by somebody.

The reading*** I've done is mostly concerned with applications of the FAE in prison reform and with regards to the military, but I am mostly intrigued by another situation that people respond pretty badly to.

Few contend that we are short of problems in America today, but even less of us are willing to take responsibility for that fact. We say that single teenage mothers got themselves into that jam and should learn to take responsibility, to lie in the bed that they have made. We say that gang members are stupid and that they need to clean up their act. We say, I voted for Gore.

I am a believer in Mill's idea that any individual's absolute freedom is nearly sacred. However, I also believe, very strongly, that if we don't take note and inflict change on the situations that shape our world, the results will continue to be the same. We will not have an engaged democracy without transparency and active discourse. I've heard a lot of people tell me that all those other people, they just won't get involved, and that's why it all sucks; I've often heard that "I really should get informed about politics, but it's so hard and I'm so busy. . ."

It is by awareness of how situations effect us and those around us that we might change that. I believe that by altering situations we might build a society where "people"-"They"-rather than merely embodying whatever vague concept (often as whipping boy or scapegoat) we wish to attribute to them--are engaged in Democracy and actual discourse. . . which, for a variety of reasons, could be much, much better for us all.

*I'm also told (by someone else) that Heidegger figured this out, presumably with no behavioral experiments whatsoever, and that it was sort of a major deal within his philosophy. Got to love those Nazis. . .

**In the SPE, a group of male college students were extensively tested for "normalcy" and psychological health, then randomly assigned to the roll of prisoner or guard and placed in a mock prison setting to be observed. It was halted after six days in the wake of three nervous breakdowns (on the part of the prisoners) and behavior that verged into torture on the part of the guards.

***This post also (clearly) owes much to The Lucifer Effect, though I've been reading other bits and pieces as well.

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