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I have good reasons for what I do! You’re just a bad person!

Friday, June 29, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Ah–the fundamental attribution error. My behavior is explained by situations while yours is explained by your disposition. A simple example:

“If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational)”.

In other words, we commit a “fundamental attribution error” when we over-value the personality-based explanations for what we see in the behavior of others and under-value the situational factors behind their behavior. (And as pointed out by Alice and Bob tripping over that rock, when we are assessing our own behavior we do the reverse.)

Despite the term being coined in the early 1970’s, research still continues to find many examples of our relentless efforts to see explanations for our own downfalls as situational (outside our control) and explanations for the downfalls of others as somehow indicative of their weak character. Two new studies find the fundamental attribution bias alive and kicking.

In the first study, researchers looked at whether we extend the fundamental attribution self-assessment-error to members of our own in-group by excusing in-group members negative behaviors as “only human”. Sure enough. When it came to negative behaviors, research participants willingly interpreted those behaviors as “only human” but were less willing to do so when it came to the negative behaviors of out-group members. [The researchers term this “infrahumanization” (“the subtle, yet troubling tendency for people to ascribe more such uniquely human attributes to their ingroups than to outgroups”).

We think it’s an extension of the self-excusing aspect of the fundamental attribution bias to those we see as “like us”. We cut those like us the same break we grant ourselves.

The second study goes to extreme situations and looks at our perceptions of torture when it’s done by us versus when it’s done by others. (Again, the in-group versus the out-group split–but this time, out-groups with no overtly hostile perception of each other.) Participants in the research study were both British and American nationals. They each read a newspaper account of the torture of a terrorist suspect–either captured and tortured by their own nation’s security forces or the other nation’s forces. The newspaper account was detailed as to the torture experienced: noting the alleged terrorist was “held in cruel and inhuman conditions and subjected to prolonged and brutal torture, including the repeated slashing of his genitals with a razor blade”. Wow!! Clearly, the researchers did not want to rely on the imagination of the research participants to conjure up just what “torture” means. The conduct was horrifying regardless of who did what. They got the message. And their results were predictable:

When the torture was perpetrated by the in-group, participants described it as more morally justified than when the torture was perpetrated by the other nation’s security services.”

These studies reflect powerful (and very human) justifications for our own behavior–or rather, our in-group’s own behavior. We want to believe that what has been done in our name (that is, by our in-group) is justified. We will even go so far as to condone torture when it’s done by “us and not them”. It’s why we repeatedly underscore the importance of making your client “like” the jurors.

If the client’s behavior is viewed as negative, jurors are going to see your client as “not like” them and are more apt to judge your client harshly for being a “bad person”. While it is unlikely you will have such an extremely “different” client as the terrorist example in the second research study–all parties to a lawsuit are different in some way–perhaps in race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or other aspects of their character.

The importance of both humanizing your client and showing jurors how your client shares their values, beliefs and experiences cannot be over-emphasized.

This is very, very big.

Koval, P., Laham., S., Haslam, N., Bastian, B., & Whelan, J. (2012). Our flaws are more human than yours: Ingroup bias in humanizing negative characteristics. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 283-295 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211423777 Download the article here: PDF

Tarrant, M., Branscombe, NR, Warner, RH, & Weston, D. (2012). Social identity and perceptions of torture: It’s moral when we do it. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology., 48, 513-518


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