One of my favorite concepts is the “fundamental attribution error.” This is where we tend to attribute internal causes for the actions of others but external causes for our own actions. Consider my favorite example: driving. I like it because everyone I know complains about other drivers to one extent or another. Ask someone if they’ve ever been cut off in traffic, and they will almost always jump at it like a dog on red meat, “Just the other day! I was driving…” But what’s more important is the reason that they were cut off: the guy’s just a jerk.
On the other hand, if you are driving with someone who cuts someone else off, they will tell you they had reasons. They are in a super big rush because their boss will kill them if they are late or the traffic was so bad that they had no choice or — and this is the most common — they just screwed up. And they are right! I’ve never known someone who drives around just looking for opportunities to piss off other people. But if you point this out to someone who has been cutoff, they will usually reject the notion violently.
I ran into this with a Christopher Hitchens fan who was mad at Richard Seymour. There was an admittedly vague sentence in Seymour’s book Unhiched. The reader understood the sentence to mean something that was clearly not true. I noted that he was misunderstanding what Seymour had written. And the reader’s response was, “Garbage.” Because it just had to be that Seymour was an evil man who wrote something he knew was wrong just to slander Hitchens. The much more reasonable explanation that Seymour had written a vague sentence that could be misinterpreted was not possible. Obviously, the reader would have had a different opinion if we were talking about his own writing.
Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling wrote something interesting in regard to this, Demand Deniers. It’s about the Tories in the UK. They believe that people don’t have jobs because they just don’t want them — rather than blaming it on outside forces. So they deny that the problem is the lack of demand that these unemployed and under-employed people experience. This, as Dillow noted, is a classic fundamental attribution error. But it is worse than that, because unlike people driving or even ignorant Christopher Hitchens fans, there is economic information on this subject.
But you can see where this comes from. The people making policy in the UK are all from the same class. They are all educated at the same top tier schools. They know that if they found themselves out of job, there would be plenty of people who would give them a job. So it must be the same for gardeners and auto mechanics and computer programmers, right?! It’s amazing that the moment that the left talks about inequality, we are blamed for class warfare. But these people live in a separate, closed off, society and that is just right and proper.
I’m not sure why we are so prone to the fundamental attribution error. But its result in the modern world is that we assume that the rich must be good, hard working people, and the poor must be bad and lazy. Public policy should be based on science, not such base instincts. We shouldn’t be running our economy based upon the same thinking patterns that bring us road rage.