Commentary Existentialism

Jason Dias: This Is What A Fundamental Attribution Error Looks Like

society painting
Jason Dias
Written by Jason Dias

The fundamental attribution error pops up everywhere. Jason Dias, existentialist and therapist, discusses why a society is the sum of their environment, not their individuality.

jason-dias-anewdomainaNewDomain — I’m not proud of much of my life. It’s not that I’m a bad guy, exactly. It’s just that most of my work up to this point has been about surviving the moment in order to make it to the next one. You know, the banal daily grind — keeping the bills relatively paid and my face relatively unpunched.

Well, the unpunched mug mostly goes with the human service work I do.

Anyway, there are a few things in this life I’m proud of, and one of them is working for an agency that integrated people of disability who were formerly segregated in state-run institutions. This is a downright excellent service, and one that is pretty much unsung in the U.S.

Our own little world

Your view of the world is probably a pretty mundane one. In America, if you work hard and follow the rules, you can make good. Good life, good marriage, good car — good everything. It’s hard to get you to look at the data of life. The data is shocking, and would knock all that “good” out of the park.

Because the data demonstrates pretty clearly that the best way to get rich in the U.S. is to be born that way; that income inequality is killing us; that our political system is more of an oligarchy than a democracy any more … and that racism is real. We love to blame people for their own problems and tout individual responsibility, but we relatively forget about there-but-for-the-grace-of-God.

society mirrorThe way we make decisions has to do with our personal experiences, and very little to do with data.

So, here’s the thing. Back in the day, we’d get people confined to institutions, find them apartments, provide living assistance, and integrate them into society. Almost invariably, the hospital staff would say it was impossible. The people remaining in the institutions at that time were the most challenging: violent, aggressive, destructive. But we brought a methodology of respectful behaviorism, a way of addressing behavior that increases freedom and agency.

One patient was very aggressive at bedtime. When staff tried to put him to bed, he sometimes scratched, sometimes smeared feces. At mealtime, if he didn’t like the food, he sometimes bit people. No, not at all suitable for a life in the community. Much too dangerous, unsanitary and unpredictable.

But in this patient’s house, with his roommate and people who were there to help him enact his decisions, there was no bedtime. No bedtime, no power struggle, no violence. He got to choose what to eat. No power struggle, no problem.

Iatrogenic means created by treatment. This person’s problems were entirely iatrogenic. In the community, when we stopped trying to enforce institutional rules on him and treated him as the free, adult citizen he was — with all the civil rights he was privy to — he became a whole different person.

The fundamental attribution error in American society is our tendency to blame the failures of the person on their attributes or characteristics. This neglects the impact that situation and environment have upon a person. We blame crime on criminals — rather than on poverty, desperation or disempowerment. Yeah, you can’t throw poverty in jail and, yeah, some people really do evil things for internal reasons.

But the vast majority of people in jail are there for social, circumstantial reasons

society baltimore riotsWhen people riot in Baltimore, we blame them for their own poverty. Why would “they” burn down their own neighborhood? We neglect the decades of oppressive social and economic conditions that lead away from logical positivism and towards frustrated acting-out. “They” are “us,” if we experienced the same ongoing conditions.

Sometimes I wonder.

I try to make decisions based on data. Other people don’t even seem to know that’s an option. Is this something to do with autism, or my scores on IQ tests or something? Truthfully? Probably not. It’s probably that I had these experiences, just like you had yours.

I saw this fundamental attribution error acted out every day.

The more you treat people with respect — real respect, not grudging tolerance — the more they live up to that respect.

For aNewDomain, I’m .

Images in order: Banality via Wikimedia Commons; There But For the Grace of God via tlumcdevos; Baltimore Riots courtesy ABC News, All Rights Reserved.

About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.