July 10, 2008


Have you ever noticed that when people do things that irritate us we tend to think they do it because they're jerks? And that when we mess up, we usually excuse ourselves by saying that something caused us to act that way?

In psychology, this is called fundamental attribution error and it was classically demonstrated in an experiment in which subjects were asked to read essays for and against Fidel Castro. The writers were told in advance which way to slant their essays. The readers tended to believe that those who were assigned to write pro-Castro essays really were pro-Castro, even though they were only carrying out an assigned task.

In other words, they didn't recognize that it was the situation of the writers that caused them to write that way.

We often tend to attribute the actions of others to their disposition rather than the situation--especially the actions we don't like. But when the roles are switched, we change the rules. The dog ate our homework! If a driver cuts into our lane, they're an idiot. We, on the other hand, had to get over there and were under a lot of pressure.

In war, the enemy--whoever it is at the time--deliberately kills innocent civilians. We occasionally inflict collateral damage. When "they" do something bad, it's because they're evil. When our side does it, mistakes were made.

Fundamental attribution error seriously inhibits our ability to understand and deal with human evil by causing us to ignore the situational factors that encourage evil behavior. It also blinds us to our own potential for evil.

I don't mean to get preachy, but this is probably why Jesus--who knew a thing or two about a thing or two--told people to take the log out of their own eye before trying to remove the speck from their neighbor's. Whether we're religious or secular, it's always easy to locate sin in the other.

INEQUALITY, HEALTH AND MORE are the subject of this interesting piece from Harvard Magazine.

"FREE" TRADE, REVISITED. This item from the UK Guardian looks at NAFTA's casualties.

CHENEY KNOWS BEST. The VP who puts the "vice" in vice president tried to muzzle climate change testimony.

BRAINWASHING. Those old enough to have lived through the Cold War may remember the widespread fear of Communist "brainwashing." That turned out to be pretty much a dud, although the Bush administration tried some of the tricks of that trade in its dalliance with torture.

THERAPISTS OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS have their own problems, according to this NY Times item. That's life in Richistan.

CAUGHT ON THE WEB. Has the internet cut into your reading time...you know...with real books?


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