A Glance at Attribution Theory

One of my friends, a psych major, directed me towards attribution theory. This term basically alludes to the preconceptions we have about people and their characteristics and the process by which we attribute them to our “reality.” Our attributions, or preconceived notions about other people, are responsible for how we behave, how we interact with others, and what we feel.

An example provided by the Psychology Handbook in which I’ve been engrossed, involves an experiment, whereby volunteers were assigned to work on a lab project (Norton Hunt 428). During the project, they were informed that they needed the help of two other people, a graduate student and a freshman. Eventually, the volunteers requested help from the graduate student and freshman. When asked later why they thought the two students helped out, they said that the graduate student wanted to help them but the freshman felt obligated to do so. These attributions had more to do with their own assumptions about status and power than any objective reality.

The implications of this theory become significantly far-reaching and influential when we think about why poor people and other victims are so often blamed for their unfortunate circumstances. Most disturbing of all are the studies that demonstrate the more dire the circumstance, the more he or she is likely to be blamed for it.

We tend to attribute people’s unfortunate circumstances to their own actions. Psychologists explain this need to blame victims as a security blanket people cling to when the world seems to fall apart. Our need to believe that the world is orderly and just is so strong that it compels us to blame others for situations over which they have little or no control.

The world is orderly and just; therefore, if you were raped, you must have been dressed in a provocative manner. To admit that it was not your fault is to disrupt my own need to believe that the world is orderly, and then I would be left with chaos in my mind and nothing would make sense.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain why women jurors tend to be the most judgmental of female rape victims. In my observation, a form of dissociation must occur in judgmental behavior. Part of needing to believe that the world is just and orderly entails separating ourselves from any indication that it could be otherwise. This means an act of separating ourselves from the victim – in thought, we justify to ourselves, that this could never happen to us, I would never wear a miniskirt, so I would never be raped and I would never engage in irresponsible behavior so I would never be poor – takes place concomitantly with judgmental thought and behavior.

The closer the identity to the victim, by implication, the greater the possibility that this unfortunate circumstance could happen to the person who judges, I believe, the more intensely he or she will attempt to dissassociate from and blame the victim. Thus, female jurors judge female rape victims more harshly than male jurors because as women, there is a greater chance that they would be raped as well, so they must work harder at disassociating themselves from women like that. Hurling insults and harsh judgments at victims gives them a sense of security, because in the end, all they’re concerned with is that this unfortunate circumstance would never happen to them, especially in the just world that exists only in their mind.

Now, if we really wanted to generalize on this matter, we may attribute judgmental behavior to self-centeredness. Certainly, unless one has been diagnosed as a sociopath, each person must embody some sort of empathy for others, as it is required for human interaction. After all, perhaps the female juror who harshly judges rape victims is passionate about helping orphans, for instance. In other words, we may be selective in who we extend empathy to and who we judge harshly based on our own interests. We care for our own. We lend a helping hand to our own cause, our own special interest groups, those we care about, but it stops there.

Of course, we are confronted with limited time and resources to maximize our commitment to others. So we help our own. We devote all our energy and emotions to the energy crisis in Venezuela, even more so if we are Venezuelans and our parents are activists in Venezuela, but the genocide in Sudan must wait. Well, I guess some communitarians like Alasdair Macintyre and Michael Sandel would applaud helping our own communities because improving the world must start small, at the grassroots level, among “our” people first and foremost. The idea is that if everyone did the same for their own communities, engaging in political and moral discussion and helping each other at the local level, this would engender a wave of change throughout the world. But I wonder, wouldn’t cross-pollination be even better? Shouldn’t empathy for one group also enhance one’s ability to be empathetic towards all?

Social psychologists believe that we make errors when making attributions. We have a proclivity to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and attribute negative characteristics to others than to ourselves given a similar situation. That is, we tend to attribute something negative and stable to other people’s behavior – he is poor because he’s irresponsible – while perceiving our own behavior as situational. In the case that I become poor, I’m likely to blame external structures around me rather than myself, but that other person is poor because he’s irresponsible. Could certain strands of communitarianism simply encourage this kind of thought and behavior? Quite likely, I presume.

Social psychologists acknowledge complexity in attribution theory due to personality traits and other differences among people, but one thing is clear. Constant attribution is learned behavior and can be unlearned. Trying to identify with those who are different from us is one step. Recognizing the situationality and temporality of difficult circumstances is another crucial step. Refraining from labeling ourselves as “incompetent” and attributing negative internal and stable qualities to our actions as well as to other people’s actions allows us to go beyond blame, and move towards positive change.

I now understand that their judgments are rooted in their need to believe that the world is just and orderly and that they are disassociating and differentiating themselves from me, out of fear and insecurity. I also recognize that I am not so different from them, for I also make judgments about others and attribute negative qualities at times to negative behavior. Now that I am mindful of my tendencies, I can question my “reality” and probe my thoughts further. I can acknowledge to myself that attribution stems from preconceived notions I have embraced and proceed to challenge these assumptions and therefore change them.

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