How many times have you honked your horn in anger or raised your middle finger at some idiot while driving? Have you ever seethed inwardly as some dawdler wastes time at the checkout counter while you are waiting behind them in line? Do you assume that the person who took up two spaces in the parking lot is a complete asshole? On the other hand, how many times have people honked at you or flipped you off as you sheepishly realize that you accidentally went out of turn at a four-way stop? Have you felt the back of you neck burning with the stares of people behind you at a checkout line as you realize you entered your PIN incorrectly or forgot to give the cashier a coupon? How about having to park awkwardly between the lines because another car was partially blocking the space? But you’re not a bad person, right? Those other people, though…
When you believe that your actions can be explained by situational factors, but other people’s actions can be explained by their personalities, you are succumbing to a particular type of attribution bias known as fundamental attribution error. Attribution bias involves the human tendency to explain our own and other people’s behavior by attributing it to causes that may actually have nothing to do with the behavior. Overall, we tend to explain our own actions, or the actions of those we know well, as being due to situations and not due to something fundamental about our personality. Conversely, when it comes to explaining the behavior of people we don’t know, we are much more likely to explain it as a function of who they are without taking contextual factors into account. Essentially, we are judging a book by its cover.
Attribution errors occur in the public sphere all the time. If you have ever made the mistake of getting sucked into the comment page rabbit hole accompanying articles about controversial issues, you know what I am talking about. So often, we are only given a tantalizing tidbit of information in an article, but that’s all it takes to trigger a cascade of attribution error. I find this troubling. One of the classic examples of attribution error is the case of the Albuquerque woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee into her lap. This case took the media by storm and eventually became a cultural touchstone for describing apparently frivolous lawsuits. The vitriol that rained down on Stella Liebeck was thick and furious. She was obviously an idiot for resting the coffee cup between her legs. She shouldn’t have been driving with hot coffee in the first place, so she must be a careless person in general. She clearly was just out to get McDonald’s because they have deep pockets. How dare she sue for an incident that was clearly her own fault? She was just trying to get rich off McDonald’s! It turns out that the reality of Liebeck’s case was much, much different than the public perception of events. There is a reason the jury awarded such a huge amount of money when they heard the case – it is because they heard the facts and made their decision based on those facts. In hearing the facts, the possibility of attribution error was dramatically reduced. I strongly encourage you to read the facts in the case if you are one of those who has never heard them. There is even a documentary film about the case called Hot Coffee, which explains how Leibeck’s case got so distorted.
I started thinking about this the other day when I was reading a Jezebel article about a woman in Ontario, Canada who hit three teenage boys with her car, injuring two and killing one. She is suing a whole host of people in connection with the case, including the dead boy. I reacted as most people probably would when I read the article: this woman is clearly a monster. She was speeding. She may have been talking on her cell phone. She killed a kid and badly injured two others! What kind of awful scum of humanity would dare to sue the families involved in this tragedy, much less sue the dead kid? And I was not surprised when I scrolled down to the comments and saw that many posters felt as I did. But as is my general practice, after getting over my initial reaction I started to wonder about the context of the situation. How fast was she actually going? Is there any evidence supporting the allegation that she was on her phone? What about the kids? Did they ride into her path? What time of day was it? What is the context? What are the facts? It turns out that it was dark when the boys were hit. They were wearing dark clothes. They were riding side-by-side along the road. Now, I’m certainly not blaming the victims here, but it sounds like this situation was ripe for potential tragedy and that they were struck by accident. Even the most attribution-biased among us probably don’t believe that the driver hit the boys deliberately. And if you’re like me, you also start to think about your own, personal context. I rarely drive the exact speed limit. I wouldn’t say I’m a speed demon, but 5-10 miles above the limit is pretty par for the course. I’ve also been guilty of taking calls while driving… sending and receiving text messages… even checking social media. (And just FYI, nowadays when I feel the temptation to use my phone while driving I ask myself if it’s worth a life to do it. The answer is always no.). If I were to hit and injure or kill someone under those circumstances, I would be crippled with guilt and shame… but would it mean I am a monster?
You may be saying to yourself that this is all well and good, but what in the world could ever justify this woman suing the dead boy and the families for emotional trauma? What kind of person would do such a thing? She must be a monster! I think this is the point at which we must pause and ask ourselves what we might feel if the same thing happened to us. This appears to have been a terrible accident. I don’t know about you, but if I hit and killed someone, whether I was at fault or not, I would be devastated. That devastation would probably manifest itself physically as well as emotionally. I would live it over and over and suffer terrible guilt, grief, and shame. And I’d also have to defend myself in the court of public opinion as well as the civil court. Of course, the driver in this case is being sued by the victims’ families. And she is countersuing because that’s what lawyers tell you to do in cases like this. It’s a tactic you use to protect yourself in the court system so that if the judgement comes down against you, you have some protection from financial ruin. I don’t know about Canada, but in the United States this is a fairly typical situation that happens at the behest of insurance companies who don’t want to be the ones paying out a big settlement. There may well be more to this situation, but I don’t think it’s fair to automatically paint the driver as a soulless monster without at least attempting to learn more about the context.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the driver in this case is blameless. But that’s not the point. The point it that our knee-jerk attribution error paints people as one-dimensional villains and allows little room for the nuances and subtleties that arise when we look at a situation in its complete context. I can say the same about people we canonize as heroes! Just as the driver in this case is probably not a demon incarnate, people who do heroic things may also not be overall nice people. We are all complex, multidimensional creatures, and it would behoove us to remember that when attribution error tempts us to label people with a single dimension.