Thursday, July 14, 2016

Attribution Bias and You.

Recently, someone posted a video of the police breaking up a protest in New Orleans. The comments on that post quickly became a heated argument, trying to justify one side or the other. “The cops are overreaching, they’re clearly racist.” Vs. “Protesters are violent and are using protests to be destructive and break laws. They’re clearly criminals.” This got me thinking about often we label groups – both ones we like and dislike – and our attitudes towards them.

Take another example. Feminists have accused men of being violent rapists. Men have responded with the #notallmen hashtag. Feminists believe that men who use the hashtag are actively attacking their movement, which is based on a noble ideal of equality, and are therefore malicious misogynists, or might as well be. Men, on the other hand, believe that it’s only a small percentage of men that are causing these problems, and the group as a whole should not be blamed. Feminists are clearly just man-haters, and only want to attack men for their injuries, be they real or imagined.

All four of these groups have one thing in common. The individuals believe that their group is noble and right, while the opposition is clearly malicious and evil. And it’s not just those groups. It can be seen in any group with a dynamic that opposes it. Just listen to any Democrat or Republican. “WE are trying to save the country, to get us back on track and recover from the mess THEY made. And if they’d just keep their stupid ideas about how to fix the economy to themselves, we can get this thing back on track. After all, it’s pretty clear we know how to fix it, and they’ve only succeeded in making things worse.” Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter, the message is the same. WE have the best intentions for the country in mind, THEY are out to actively destroy it.

It turns out there’s a pretty simple reason for this – Attribution bias. At its core, it says that when good things happen to us (or a group we include ourselves in), then it’s because we did good. If our side wins, it’s because we’re prepared, and we’re awesome, and we’re in the right, therefore it’s only natural we’ll come out on top. But when bad things happen to us, we tend to chalk that up to bad luck. If we lose, it’s because the other side cheated, or something was broken, or things just didn’t go our way. It’s certainly not our fault. This extends outward to the other side as well. If we win because we’re superior, then they must lose because they’re inferior. If we win because we wanted it more, then they lost because they didn’t. But if we lose because of bad luck, then they win because of GOOD luck.

So, in other words, when we’re judging OUR intentions (and the intentions of groups we like) then we assume we’re doing it for the best reasons. Cops are trying to protect people, Protesters just want to voice their concerns on overreach, Feminists want equality for women, Men don’t want to be blamed for the actions of minorities, Democrats want to help the poor, and Republicans want to strengthen business. All of these are noble things. But, when we’re judging the intentions of others (and the intentions of groups we DON’T like) we assume they’re doing it for the worst reasons. Cops are racists. Protesters are just violent people looking to commit crimes, Feminists hate all men, Men are all rapists and misogynists, Democrats are lazy and want handouts, Republicans only care about the rich getting richer.

The problem is neither of these are true. The other side is NEVER as evil as we see them, and truth be told, we’re never as holy as we imagine. We’re all just people, and we have complex beliefs that sometimes contradict, even within ourselves.

I have a challenge for you, the next time you find yourself at odds with another group. Rather than just writing that person off as evil, and assuming they’re just opposing your side out of spite, try to understand their point BEFORE you counter it with more hate. I can promise that most of the time, the person on the other side of the argument is NOT evil, and if you approach from a point of understanding, rather than just automatically assuming that they’re not going to listen to you anyway, You might make some progress in building a bridge between the two sides. Sure, it won’t work all the time, and sometimes it’ll be harder than others, but isn’t it worth it when it DOES work?

In Paper Towns, John Green has a quote; “Imagine others complexly”. Because we’re inside our own heads, we know that there’s a lot going on in our beliefs, and the actions we take are almost always justifiable. But when we see others, we don’t have that same insight about what’s going on in their heads, and so we assume that their actions are not. We color those actions based on how we feel about them as a person, no matter what the motivations actually are. Instead, we should strive to imagine each person is a being as unique and complex as we are in our own heads. We should give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps by imagining others complexly, we can all come out of this better people.