‹ Go Back  |  Posted: January 14th, 2012

The fundamental attribution error in politics

Living in New Hampshire in a primary year is not an easy thing.  I don’t have a traditional landline myself, but my mother, whom I live with, does.  Ron Paul’s campaign computer called no less than five times the other night, just as we were trying to watch a movie.  It’s aggravating because you can’t yell at a computer.  Well, you can, but it doesn’t give you much satisfaction.

It isn’t just the intrusion of constant calls that gets annoying though; more and more every year, it’s the finger-pointing and lack of accountability that pervades the dialogue of every campaign ad and debate.  Jeffrey Saltzman had an interesting blog post recently in which he laments what appears to be a very pervasive case of the fundamental attribution error in politics (my characterization, not his, but I think he would agree with my use of the term).   There is a human tendency to see our own actions as motivated by external circumstances, but the actions of others as motivated by bad intentions.  Saltzman lists examples both domestic and international, including Anthony Weiner claiming that someone else hacked his Twitter account and circulated pornographic pictures of him; Herman Cain blaming a conspiracy for the claims of a woman who said she had an affair with him; and a entire host of Arab leaders who blamed terrorists rather than the terrible conditions they themselves had created for the people’s attempts to overthrow their regimes.  I would add my own example of Ron Paul claiming to be completely unaware and therefore not responsible for racist remarks in newsletters put out in his name.  And of course, there are countless other examples across the spectrum of politicians, on both sides of the partisan divide.

We see it in the corporate world too.  A organizational leader gets caught out for bad behavior and immediately looks to external factors to explain it.  It was government regulation or incompetence; it was a corrupt employee that no one was aware of; it was the lies and entrapment of a competitor.  Think of the Wall Street bank industry’s executive compensation after bailouts, the News Corp phone hacking scandal, and the endless accounting scandals that get reported every year. Rarely does anyone just step up and say, “I screwed up.  I’m sorry.”

Saltzman says, “While of course not new, the number of times that the excuse of external forces being  at play as the rationale for dismissing accusations, crimes, violence, murder, the taking away of rights, and in general bad behavior seems to me to be more plentiful now than it has ever been. I have to think that some of the leaders dismissing these activities are simply looking for a convenient excuse for their actions and are knowingly lying, but that others may be truly incapable of seeing the world accurately, always seeing sinister forces of some sort working against them or external forces controlling them. I am not sure which is worse.”

I’m not sure either, but I wish Ron Paul would call in person so I could give him a piece of my mind.

 

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