A Fundamental Error


A Fundamental Error

In social psychology, the term dispositional analysis refers to a rush to judgment, with an assumption that the behavior of a person is indicative of his or her internal characteristics. The tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are, without taking into consideration situational forces, is known as fundamental attribution error.

Who is to blame, and how can we punish this bad person?
Such retributive thinking is endemic throughout Western Civilization; indeed, it is at the core of our criminal justice system. Social psychologists fully understand that people from more individualistic societies such as ours are prone to this fundamental attribution error. It is simply part of our paradigm to view people as independent agents and, generally, to focus on individuals rather than contextual components. We seem to have difficulty considering the role that external factors may have upon an individual’s acts. Yet, in contrast, we often interpret our own behavior as being situationally driven. The following is a simple example of this phenomenon:
“…consider the situation where Alice, a driver, is cut off in traffic by Bob. Alice attributes Bob’s behavior to his fundamental personality, e.g. he thinks only of himself, he is selfish, he is a jerk, he is an unskilled driver; she does not think it is situational, e.g. he is going to miss his flight, his wife is giving birth at the hospital, his daughter is convulsing at school. Consider too the situation where Alice makes the same mistake and excuses herself by saying she was influenced by situational causes, e.g. I am late for my job interview, I must pick up my son for his dentist appointment; she does not think she has a flaw in her internal characteristics, e.g. I am such a jerk, I treat others in contempt, I am bad at driving.” [“Fundamental Attribution Error” (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Fundamental attribution error) Downloaded 10/22/17.]

Is there any wonder why we have so many road rage incidents? Perhaps it is because we have little attributional charity. As opposed to a dispositional analysis, rushing to judge “bad people”, attributional charity is first and foremost a consideration of the behavioral context, or ALL of the contexts which may have led to the undesirable behavior. Why did this person act in this manner? WHAT is to blame?

The lawyers for Lt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, one of the infamous prison guards involved in the horrific and notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib during the Iraqi war, asked Philip Zimbardo to join the defense team. Zimbardo is the famed professor of the Stanford Prison Experiment and author of The Lucifer Effect, which explains how good people can do bad things. When the photos and attendant story were first reported on by CBS in April, 2004, military spokespersons simply labeled Frederick and his fellow prison guards as a few “bad apples”. This is a common refrain for both the military and police force when an individual within their ranks exhibits any undesirable behavior. However, Zimbardo presented evidence that Frederick and his co-defendants were not “bad apples”, but were in fact good people and that the problem instead was a “bad barrel”. In other words, that their deeds were corrupted by powerful situational forces, which should be taken into consideration. But for the behavioral context, these exemplary individuals would never have committed such acts.

In tandem with our common fundamental attribution error, the Western worldview seems to include the conscious or unconscious belief in a just world. We tend to believe that people typically get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This coincides perfectly with the fundamental attribution error in that we attribute failures or bad behaviors to dispositional causes rather than situational causes. Who can fault us for this just-world phenomenon; it provides us with a sense of security, reduces our threat perception, and helps us find meaning in troubling times. Unfortunately, although it benefits us psychologically, it may lead us to subtle or overt victim blaming as well.

Ironically, I knew Chip Frederick personally. In the late 90s, he was a prison guard at Buckingham Correctional Center and I was one of his prisoners. Although, officially he was a “correctional officer”, he had no training in corrections (i.e., the rehabilitation of or the correcting of offending and criminal behavior) and was taught only the rudiments of the turnkey. That said, I remember Frederick as a decent and patriotic man who did not in any manner abuse his power over incarcerated people, although he certainly had ample opportunity to do so.

What Chip Frederick and I have in common is that we were both referred to by the military spokespersons as “bad apples”. That is a fundamental attribution error, however, for neither of us were/are bad people and both of our actions in question were situationally induced. One difference between us is that I was convicted of crimes I did not commit, though I am guilty of wrongdoing.

One of the most common questions I am asked concerning my actions after Jennifer Lea Evans was murdered by my close SEAL Team “swim buddy”, Billy Joe Brown, is “Why didn’t you immediately go to the authorities?” Everyone seems to know what they would have done if they were forced into a similar circumstance. What they wouldn’t have done, they tell me, is react as I reacted. Indeed, I wouldn’t have either if any of the circumstances would have been different, but the totality of the situation led me to cover up this horrific crime and attempt to protect my swim buddy. Few have walked a mile in my shoes…or gone through hell week, dive competency, live fire exercises, demolitions training, jumped from airplanes, or hundreds of other activities, all the while being indoctrinated before the age of 20 never to leave your special forces comrade. Yet, there were many other additional disparate forces that led to my behavior as well.

Never mind the fact that, due to his deplorable record and history, Billy Brown should never have been in the U.S. military and certainly not the SEAL Teams. Nearly one and a half years before he took the life of Jennifer, Billy and I were forced together as swim buddies, as fate would have it, for the sole reason that we were the same height. Graduating the toughest military training in the country with BUD/S Class 196 after having been injured together, thrust onto the same SEAL Team (Four) and even the same platoon (Echo), tied the two of us together in an uncommon bond.

Perhaps, like most others, I am guilty of attributing the behavior of others to their internal characteristics, while viewing my own actions as determined largely by situational variables. I accept this error and try to consciously practice better attributional charity. (I must add that Billy Joe Brown seems to have legitimate sociopathic/psychopathic issues and has never been accused of being a good person.) Acknowledging our own fundamental attribution error does not mean excusing bad behavior, nor negating individual free will. What it does mean is understanding the forces that have led to the behavior in the first place. This understanding can enhance our patience and empathy for other human beings and can help us as a society to be more just. May our errors be righteous ones.

“Each of us is more than the worse thing we’ve ever done.” – Brian Stevenson, Just Mercy