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The fundamental attribution error

Sat 12 Jan 2013 by mskala Tags used:

Here's a quote.

We see a sloppily-parked car and we think "what a terrible driver," not "he must have been in a real hurry." Someone keeps bumping into you at a concert and you think "what a jerk," not "poor guy, people must keep bumping into him." A policeman beats up a protestor and we think "what an awful person," not "what terrible training." The mistake is so common that in 1977 Lee Ross decided to name it the "fundamental attribution error": we attribute people’s behavior to their personality, not their situation.

That's from a September 2012 Web log entry by Aaron Swartz. I didn't know him and it seems I never will, because he killed himself yesterday. We had some friends in common and we fought for some of the same causes. He, like me and a lot of other people, got in legal trouble for publishing some information that large corporations didn't want published. In his case it was some academic publishers, and in mine, it was Mattel. It sounds like his case was going in a much worse direction than what happened to me. And it seems that he suffered from clinical depression.

A lot of smart people are talking right now about Aaron Swartz and about depression. Since I didn't know him, there's not a lot I feel I can or should say about the man himself. I poured a libation for him even though I've no idea what his religious beliefs were if any, and even if a lot of people probably wouldn't appreciate such a gesture, but I did it as much for myself as for him. And I don't want to co-opt someone else's life and death to push my own causes, especially not someone who did have plenty of causes of his own and ability to speak for himself. I would hate to have my own life, whenever it ends, used as an excuse for someone else's agenda.

But I led with the quote above because Aaron Swartz said it himself, and I agree with it; and Lawrence Lessig, whom I admire, did know him and wrote that "This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice." So here's a mixed emotion of mine.

I love mental illness! I love mental illness because it's a perfectly crafted excuse. Mental illness allows us to get points for trying to fix a problem, but no human being needs to admit responsibility for the problem. Mental illness is a source of crimeless victims. If someone is sick, then it goes absolutely without saying that that's nobody's fault. We just need to be empathic and offer the patient "help." We feel good if we can "help," but if the "illness" kills them, well, it's very unfortunate we couldn't "help" more, but it's still nobody's fault. People do die from being sick sometimes. Saying that a person is "ill" and talking about biochemistry is an excuse to think that the important problem is a problem with that person and not a problem with anything or anybody outside of that person. Thinking that your problems are outside you and with other people is - and this is a masterstroke - defined to be a symptom of mental illness called "projection." So mental illness is something we're freely allowed to attribute to personality instead of situation. Saying that someone's problems are caused by sickness is an excuse not to think about what and who might have helped them get sick.

By all means if someone has broken knees let's make sure they get to see a Bone Doctor, and get them a good wheelchair and painkilling drugs and let's run a campaign to raise awareness and end the stigma of knee illness. Let's do the research and determine that "broken knees are caused by a nonstandard distribution of calcium compounds in the synovial fluid." But let's not pretend that we don't know what those words actually mean, nor that the language of medicine and illness really explains the most important issue. Let's not completely ignore who's holding the fucking sledgehammer!

Let's never say "mental illness is nobody's fault." Don't let's attribute Aaron's suicide to his personality instead of his situation. Maybe this world could do with a little less "awareness" focused at the victims of mental illness, and maybe just an occasional glance at the bigger picture.

9 comments

Celes
Got me thinking that an organization is a big mass of inertia propelled by the will of those that toil under it. And when there is some unjust or non-working part of that organization, it takes a great amount of will to change that organization for the better.

Case in point: Congress for all its bad rap that it gets, it is what it is because of the inertia, and apathy of the voters to reform it. Many are sick and tired of all this bickering that might bring us to the US government defaulting on its debt, and whatnot, and the lack of compromise. Yet they are blaming the people in the system that are forced to play by these rules and are inevitably just a cog on the bigger system. Just one man is not enough to stand and reform congress, it takes enormous empathy and fervor for this cause in order for reform to take place. You essentially have to change the way the system works.

So instead of watching cable news pandering to your own narrow views of this world, and of voting the same people in office that don't deserve your vote, and of actually rising up and saying "my vote counts, and i want to change how congress works" well, you are partly to blame for the way congress is how it is. Take responsibility by your own inaction and apathy to this world's issues and problems.

My two cents.
Celes - 2013-01-19 23:36
Matt
I think my responsibility as a Canadian for the nonsense that goes on in the US Congress may be very limited, but your basic point is a good one and can be applied in Canada and elsewhere as well.
Matt - 2013-01-20 06:30
Philosopher
Could it be you are also guilty of fundamental attribution error in this log entry? You talk of Aaron as a victim. Could it be that his suicide is a perfectly valid solution to environment/society he simply didn't want to live in?
Philosopher - 2013-01-21 14:38
Matt
Philosopher - I thought that "his suicide is a perfectly valid solution to environment/society he simply didn't want to live in" was what I suggested as a very significant possibility above. Do you think that contradicts his also being victimized or suffering from depression? I'm inclined to think all three may be true.
Matt - 2013-01-21 15:01
Matt
It can still be someone's fault that the "environment/society" in question exists.
Matt - 2013-01-21 15:02
Philosopher
As much as it may be somebody's fault, there may not necessarily be anything that can be done about it in general (that is to say, it is possible suicide *is* the only option). Many animal species die out due to habitat destruction and there isn't much that can be done about it other than cull some other species (people for instance). A civilization as large as ours needs to be well ordered and there may not be room for every opposing lifestyle (I'm not saying that is the case here, just that it is the case in general). I'd like to point out to Desmond Morris' "The Human Zoo" in this context. Some breeds do very well in captivity. Some breeds develop all kinds of "unnatural" behaviour (homosexuality being an interesting example). And some breeds simply die in captivity (I suppose this is the animal analogue of suicide).
Philosopher - 2013-01-21 15:46
Matt
The great thing about this kind of Darwinism is that we don't even need to actually kill smart people in order to create a world without them - in the long run, it's enough just to prevent them from getting laid.

Is that the world those of us who are still alive really want to create? It seems it is, from the evidence of our actions.
Matt - 2013-01-22 07:54
Raymond Lutz
Smart people not getting laid? N'est-ce pas l'inverse? The brain has evolved to help your courtship: be kind, make her laugh and bingo! 8-)
"The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature" from G.Miller

But I know it's not that simple... I spent many dark years in depression, suffering from my loneliness, surely no girls were finding me funny. It's a catch 22 problem: It's only after you've accepted (and lengthly suffered from) your celibacy that others seem interested to you again.

eh, I ended up here when I started a search about bitcoin, distributed DNS, the naming problem, aaronsw and mskala...
Raymond Lutz - 2013-03-31 09:39
Lancelot
Two of Don Miguel Ruiz's famous "Four Agreements" are: "Don't take anything personally," and "Don't make assumptions." I think that these constitute a good approach to avoiding the making of fundamental attribution errors. When a driver cuts me off on the highway, it is so easy to assume that there is something fundamentally wrong with his or her attitude and level of respect for my safety. It is so easy to think that I have been singled out for poor treatment. Of course, that driver could be having a seizure of some kind instead of making an actual decision to cut me off. Regardless of whether or not the driver deserves the benefit of doubt, I deserve the more comfortable state I enjoy when I don't take rudeness personally and don't even assume that rudeness is what was actually involved.
Lancelot - 2013-05-24 18:11


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