“In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining another person’s behavior.”
The chief sin of Ayn Rand was fundamental attribution error. In a passage from her book, Anthem, she wrote, “I am sovereign! I am sovereign! I am sovereign!” While the rigorous individualism is noble, it negates any compassion one might have for his fellow human beings. After all, what is the point of empathy for someone who has control of absolute reality over his life? No matter the odds, everyone can hurdle the obstacles, and if you can’t, then it is your own fault. Jesus said, “there are many stumbling blocks in this world, but woe to the one through whom the stumbling comes.” Apparently, he thought someone could make you fall, regardless of how much individual efforts you might muster up. A crude example might be, “you can breathe air in outer space with out a space helmet, you just have to figure out how.” If two people sprinting across the top of the empire state building leap into the air, and ones says “fly! fly! fly!” while the other says “fall! fall! fall!” Regardless of what they both say, a certain destiny awaits them at the bottom.
Fundamental attribution error is probably the most common social offence in today’s America. One never hears, as my father once told me, “you never know what it is like until you have walked a mile in a man’s shoes.” This brings us back to Aristotle’s blank tablet theory. If man is born a blank tablet then all of his knowledge is absorbed through the culture around him. The logic proceeds to demonstrate that if this were true, then man’s individualistic efforts would always create success, and there would be no possibility of failure if he applies himself in the right way. Ultimately, man would be at the center of his universe, and in control of every aspect of his life, leaving nothing to chance. Who could possibly have any empathy for someone such as this?
Empathy wouldn’t be necessary. It would have to be eradicated from the human psyche. Perhaps Americans have become a hoard of callous, narcissistic brand of people?
One example of the attribution error is a man out of work who has been genuinely trying to find gainful employment. From a observer’s point of view, he may think the man is lazy. However, what if the economy, and particularly his trade, is not in demand any more. The observer commits fundamental attribution error. It is like trying to tell the coal miners to get their lazy selves up and go to work. There is no coal industry. How can they?
If it were you who was out of work and knew that you were putting forth your best effort, you might empathize with the man who couldn’t find work? In Rand’s later years, she developed cancer and was forced to take Medicare insurance to pay the medical bills, a program that she despised. Her books were not selling well enough to support her medical problems. When she didn’t need Medicare, then the program was a great evil because, in her mind, it robbed people of their independence, and did not allow them to pull themselves up by their boot straps. Yet, it was ok for her to take Medicare when she needed it, just not anybody else when they needed it.
The most quoted verse in the bible by Americans is, “judge not lest ye be judged,” yet someone how we have become the most judgmental people on the planet earth. Another example comes from the bible where a man begged the King to forgive his debt. When it was granted, that same man, after accumulating money, loaned some to a friend, and when the friend could not repay the debt, he had no mercy to forgive, and yet, summoned the officials to throw his friend into debtor’s prison.
This American mentality leaves much to be desired. The King, when he found out what that man did, became so enraged, that he threw him into prison, and not to be released until every cent of the debt had been paid. Even today, there are a number of states that now have a law against giving a homeless person food. There may come a day when the people who support that law are hungry. As long as “whatever happens to you, doesn’t happen to me,” prevails, people will always be blind. A system that worships individualism precludes how that system collectively forges individual choices. Again, Solomon explains: “The race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise, or wealth to the brilliant, but timing and chance happens to the all. Like fish caught in a cruel net, so men are trapped by evil times that suddenly come upon them.”
“The actor-observer bias is a term in social psychology that refers to a tendency to attribute one’s own actions to external causes, while attributing other people’s behaviors to internal causes. Essentially, people tend to make different attributions depending upon whether they are the actor or the observer in a situation. The actor-observer bias tends to be more pronounced in situations where the outcomes are negative.”
I have written about the over emphasis placed on the individual. There is the other extreme whereby an over emphasis is placed on the social conditions that surround the individual. However, on that same note, depending one which end of the spectrum controls the operating system, a totalitarian society will either squash the individual and leave him powerless, or raise the individual to such heights, whereby a social Darwinist society will emerge that concentrates all the power in the hands of a few.
Solomon explains: “I looked out upon the land and saw the tears of the oppressed, but there was nothing they could do, because power was on the side of the oppressor.”
In psychology there is a term called “learned helplessness.” This is a concept that describes someone who is able, and the opportunity is available, but will not make the effort and allow others to carry his own weight. Actor-observer bias places too much responsibility on the collective and not enough on the individual. Keep in mind, that these concepts, I am writing about are only valid in a truly free society. Under a society of despotism, all of this goes out the window and does not apply.
Real freedom requires a system of checks and balances; the bulwark or work horse of our constitution. Unfortunately, we see both ends of the continuum, actor observer bias, and fundamental attribution error, in our post modern world. There does not seem to be a ballast that assists in creating a sense of homeostasis.