Monday, June 28, 2010

Fundamental Attribution Errors

Livia did a blog post a while back about how fundamental attribution error influences readers. Fundamental attribution error describes how we attribute misbehavior (lateness, rudeness, etc.) made by other people to their personality, while attributing our own misbehavior to external circumstances. This is partly due to our intimate awareness of the circumstances surrounding our own mistakes but might know nothing about the circumstances surrounding someone else’s. She pointed out that an author can cause sympathy in a reader by letting the reader see the reasons behind an otherwise unlikable character’s actions. She suggests that understanding increases sympathy and decreases the fundamental attribution error. Trust a brain scientist to give us a clue about how our readers might realistically view our characters!

Thinking about fundamental attribution error also made me consider how it is important for writers’ to understand human psychology and be willing to let their protagonist’s make those kinds of mistakes. It is unrealistic to have a protagonist always correctly perceive the cause behind another’s actions – knowing if they are normally aggressive individuals or if there are simply tired, stressed, scared, and hungry. It is far more realistic, and more interesting, if the protagonist are allowed to make fundamental attribution errors.

Ed McBain (crime genre) and Robin Hobbs (fantasy genre) are experts at allowing their characters to misunderstand each other, such as by making fundamental attribution errors, and exploring the consequences of such misunderstandings.

In my drive to further understand some of the reasons behind rather unlikable hypocrisies, I also thought about how fundamental attribution errors may also give some insight into racist, sexist, classist (etc.). Perhaps we are more prone to empathising with those who are superficially similar to ourselves, and thus spend more time thinking of reasons why they did what they did.

Of course, this would be a very little piece of a very big puzzle involving the –isms. The various -isms also arise from a need to re-enforce (or undermine) existing power structures, clashes in cultural perspectives and mannerisms, bad encounters with misbehaving minorities from within a particular social group, historical bloodshed through war and conquest, and even language barriers. The –isms are also somewhat immune to the fundamental attribution error in that they can become internalised so that, for example, men might be more likely attribute their poor parenting skills to innate deficits and personality flaws, while a woman might focus on external factors such as lack of support, steep learning curves, and sleep deprivation.

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