Politics and the Psychology of Blame

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on July 6, 2007

Progressives and conservatives understand responsibility in very different ways. This discussion explores the psychology of blame as it relates to strict father and nurturant parent moralities. Extending beyond these core concepts, an important psychological bias is presented that applies to politics.

There is a great deal of research about the brain that is directly relevant to politics. So far in this discussion series on political preference I have introduced the status quo bias and gut feelings as being very important for progressive politics.

Previous Rockridge writings on responsibility (Making Accountability Accountable [insert link]and The Meaning of Responsibility) have argued that progressives and conservatives mean different things when they refer to this fundamental American value. Now I want to share a few interesting observations from social psychology that allows us to take a practical look at both versions and offer concrete steps we can take to avoid the use of the conservative responsibility frame.

Psychological Biases and Their Importance in Politics

Cognitive scientists have discovered a long list of biases present in human thought having to do with the ways our brains process information. I have already presented the status quo bias and its implications for progressive reform. The cognitive bias that is most relevant to responsibility is known as the fundamental attribution error. Here is how it works, according to a web-based study guide on attribution:

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors such as personality traits, abilities, and feelings. The fundamental attribution error is also called the correspondence bias, because it is assumed that other people’s behavior corresponds to their personal attributes. When explaining their own behavior, on the other hand, people tend to attribute it to situational factors.

Alexis falls asleep in class. Sean attributes her behavior to laziness. When he fell asleep in class last week, however, he attributed his own behavior to the all-nighter he pulled finishing a term paper.

This bias was first discovered by Edward Jones and Victor Harris in 1967 during an experiment where subjects listened to pro- and anti-Castro speeches. Subjects were asked to rate the attitudes of the speakers about Fidel Castro. When the subjects believed the speakers freely chose the positions they took, they naturally attributed positive attitudes to speakers giving pro-Castro speeches. Contrary to Jones’ and Harris’ hypothesis, however, many subjects still attributed positive attitudes to pro-Castro speakers when they were told that their positions were assigned based on a coin toss. The same was true for ant-Castro speeches.

This has profound implications for politics. Consider the popularity of George W. Bush before and after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. According to the TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics polling data, Bush started 2001 with an approval rating of 65%. His approval fell slowly, but steadily, throughout the year to a level of 53.5% just prior to the attack. According to Brian Mitchell’s article “America Shows Signs of Worry After Burst of Sept. 11 Optimism“:

“Then came Sept. 11, and Bush’s popularity soared. Within a month, the leadership index hit 83.3. It stayed above 80 through January, thanks to the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida was on the run, and the war on terror was going well.”

How did so many people change their minds about Bush’s leadership abilities? Wasn’t this the same person who made headlines for the length of his vacations because he wasn’t getting much done in office? Isn’t he the person who continued to read a children’s story at Booker Elementary after hearing about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center? And yet he was praised for his strong leadership in the days that followed, as though there were something internal to his person that made him a great leader.

This is a textbook example of fundamental attribution error. The situation was filled with factors influencing the events unfolding after the attack. Rescue workers filled the role of hero as they trudged through debris searching for survivors. Citizens across the nation (and throughout the world) filled the role of supportive community as our hearts opened to the suffering of the victims. The story required a heroic leader, and Bush played the part vividly when he grabbed a megaphone and spoke strong words to onlookers at the site of devastation. This powerful cultural narrative caused many of us to attribute undue praise to the individual. Our cognitive bias influenced us to over-emphasize Bush’s role and disregard many relevant situational factors. (To learn more about the way stories have a logic of their own, check out this discussion of stories as arguments.)

How It Works: The Theory of Essences

Researchers continue to debate how the fundamental attribution error works. One explanation is that we have greater awareness of factors influencing our own behaviors than we have for the behavior of others. This explanation makes sense, but does not explain the observation that the bias is more pronounced in societies that focus on the individual and less pronounced in communal societies (more on this below).

I am not a social psychologist. My perspective comes from the cross-cutting field of cognitive semantics, which explores how knowledge and meaning emerge in human cognition. From this perspective, I would like to suggest that the concepts we use to understand what people are and how they relate to the world play a central role in this phenomenon.

An important concept that is prevalent in human thought is the Theory of Essences, summarized in Lakoff’s book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (pg. 161):

“Among the properties that things have, some are essential; that is, they are those properties that make the thing what it is, and without which it could not be that kind of thing. Other properties are accidental – that is, they are properties that things happen to have, not properties that capture the essence of the thing.”

Conscious thoughts make sense because they have been structured by the brain in specific ways. One very important part of this structuring is the partitioning of things-in-the world into categories. This is why the jumble of visual, auditory, and other kinds of information are perceived as “things” in the first place. In order to reason effectively on the fly, it is helpful to have an idea of what kinds of things you are dealing with. Our brains fill this in automatically, attributing an essence to the things-in-the-world that we see.

This is how the Theory of Essences comes about. Thus, when we see a thing that we have identified as a person (Alexis in the example above), we attribute certain features that our brains associate with personhood – personality, intentions, etc. At the same time, when we interpret our own behaviors, we conceptualize situational factors as things-in-the-world that affect us (such as the influence pulling an all-nighter has on my ability to stay awake in class).

The essence attributed to objects in the world does not have to be literally true. This is where framing is important. If the commonsense notion of a person is the rational actor from Western Enlightenment ideas (a person who rationally weighs the pros and cons of every decision to maximize self-interest), the essence of a person will include these features. On the other hand, if our culture is based on the notion that the self is comprised of the web of relationships a person has with members of his/her community, the essence of a person will include these features instead.

The frame (mental structure that provides context to ideas) for self shapes the logic of attribution. In an individualistic culture like the one we have in the U.S., there will be considerable emphasis on the essence of an individual. This makes the fundamental attribution error more pronounced. A ‘collectivist’ culture like the one in Japan does not place nearly as much emphasis on the individual. The bias is less prevalent in members of that culture. (As reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by J. G. Miller titled “Culture and the development of everyday social explanation” published in 1984.)

Progressive and Conservative Worldviews

The progressive and conservative worldviews are based on metaphors of the family. In the progressive worldview (based on a nurturant model of the family), a person grows in the context of many relationships. As this worldview is expressed in a progressive person, the attribution error becomes less pronounced.

The conservative worldview (based on the strict model of the family) understands each person to be on his or her own. As this worldview is expressed, the attribution error becomes more pronounced.

Effective Methods for Reducing the Bias

The fundamental attribution error occurs more frequently when people are reasoning under cognitive load (while concentrating on something challenging that requires a lot of attention). One way to reduce the effect of this bias is to think about situational factors when you are not stressed with other things to do. This isn’t always easy.

Another way to reduce the bias is to promote progressive ideas based on empathy. By imagining yourself in the other person’s situation, it will be much easier to recognize situational factors that you might otherwise overlook.

Who is to Blame for Funding the Occupation of Iraq?

George Lakoff and Glenn Smith, two of our Senior Fellows here at Rockridge, recently wrote about the Congressional responsibility [insert link to Congress is the Decider article] to set the broad foreign policy agenda in Iraq. According to the U.S. Constitution, the role of Congress includes declarations of war, funding of military operations, and making the determination after two years (or less if a time line was set initially) whether or not to stay on the same course or advance a different policy. This is why George and Glenn declared, “Congress is the decider!”

A corollary of placing this responsibility with Congress is that its majority party is in a position to be blamed for approving the appropriations of funds for military operations in Iraq. I will now complicate this logic by asking a question…

Is the Democratic Party to blame for the ongoing disaster in Iraq or were they forced by circumstance to choose between overly restricted choices that would make them look bad whether they approved the funding or not?

This question reveals that we can choose to attribute responsibility to the individuals involved or attribute the responsibility to situational factors that may have significantly influenced the behaviors of these individuals.

To Blame or Not to Blame

Let’s consider the question about whether the Democratic Party is to blame for continuing the funding of the Iraq Occupation. Immediately following the vote, there was an uproar among progressives that the elected officials were not trustworthy. Many criticized them for failing to uphold campaign promises. This is an example of attributing the personality flaw of untrustworthy to elected officials to interpret their behavior.

At the Rockridge Institute, we have been working hard to help progressives understand the importance of framing for shaping unconscious aspects of our thoughts. In particular, we have analyzed a large number of conservative frames (tax relief, War on Terror, illegal immigrant, etc.) to show progressives that they have been using language that undermines their values.

This is a situational factor.

In the paper The Framers Got it Right: Congress is the Decider [insert link], George Lakoff and Glenn Smith argued two things:

  1. Progressive members of Congress have a responsibility to frame the role of Congress in the manner intended by the U.S. Constitution
  2. Members of Congress had already lost the debate months before the vote because they continued to use conservative frames for the role of Congress

A question I would like to ask is:

Did progressive members of Congress consciously select conservative frames (which would make them responsible for their actions) or were they manipulated by decades of crafted spin to use conservative frames unknowingly.

This is a very important question. Have many citizens erroneously blamed the behavior (voting for funding) on the individuals without considering this critically important situational factor.

What do you think? Let’s talk about this and see if we can get to the bottom of it together. (This is a complicated issue, and I have not come to a firm conclusion one way or the other.)