Everyday Evil, Part 1: The Fundamental Attribution Error

In October I was planning on speaking to church leaders in the Portland area as a part of ACU's Elderlink program. Unfortunately, my blog was considered to be too controversial for some of those organizing the event. So, I won't be going.

However, I had begun to work on my materials for the engagement. After conversations with my good friend Mark Love, I was planning to speak about "Everyday Evil." Since I'm not attending Elderlink I thought I'd share some of my prepared material here.

The thesis of Everyday Evil is this: All of us are capable of evil. Much of the evil in the world has been and still is committed by people just like you and me. Evil isn't a malevolent force that randomly attacks people. It is, rather, a suite of social psychological forces that slowly engulf the unsuspecting. My goal in presenting this material is to highlight how we ill serve our faith communities by viewing evil in ontological terms. We need to see evil as a social psychological phenomenon. If we do this I believe we can work more effectively and prophylactically in our faith communities.

To start, I want to talk about the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

The FAE is a widely known attributional error observed in social psychological research. The FAE is the tendency to overestimate dispositional factors over situational factors in explaining human behavior. Phrased another way, we tend to see the things going on inside of a person (e.g., traits, personality, motives, desires) as more important than the forces outside of the person (e.g., context, social pressures) in determining behavior. Basically, we downplay the power of context and situation.

In the language of philosophy, the FAE suggests that we tend to see people in a Platonic terms. That is, we are essentialists. We think that people have an "essence," an inner core that dictates and determines the actions of the person. Thus, we think the world is populated by different "kinds" of people. Good people. Bad people. Strong people. Weak people. Saints. Sinners.

But all these labels are just instances of the fundamental attribution error. There aren't "kinds" of people. There aren't good people or bad people. There are simply people in situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong.

This is not to say that situations wholly determine our behavior. Just that we tend to dramatically, and often catastrophically, underestimate the power of context and situation. And it is this "underestimate of context" that sets us up for evil.

In practical terms, the FAE suggests this: We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. That is, we tend to apply labels to ourselves, seeing ourselves in Platonic terms. We see ourselves adjectivally. As a "kind" of person. A good father. A good husband. And so on.

But the FAE suggests that to see myself in this way is a mistake. A potentially costly one. I'm not a "good" husband. I'm a husband who is fortunate enough to be in a good situation. But if I fail to realize this distinction, I can mismanage my situations and run the risk to falling into moral darkness.

Let me use an example that applies to me as a Christian husband. How many "good" "Christian" husbands fall into affairs? Are these men "bad"? Did they not love their wives? To look at what happened in those terms misses the point. What in all likelihood happened is that these men very slowly, and generally unintentionally, placed themselves in situations where pressures slowly worked away at them. To speak bluntly, it really does one little good to say you love your wife. What matters is to avoid situations because you love you wife.

This model applies to all moral issues. It applies to issues of addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, time management and on and on. Across these domains, situations will have way more power than what we think. Consequently, too many "good" people blindly wander into situations that cause them to morally falter.

So the first lesson in dealing with everyday evil is this: Treat your virtue with the utmost suspicion. Don't view yourself in Platonic terms. Think of yourself contextually and situationally. And as you do this, never allow yourself to believe your character is sufficient to carry you through. The history of everyday evil is riddled with the ruined lives of those who said, "I don't know how I could have done that. It's just not like me."


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8 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 1: The Fundamental Attribution Error”

  1. Richard,

    FAE demonstrated. Your blog controversial? Compared to what? Well, I guess the asshole posts hit home. Time for the "golden hemorrhoid" for the appropriate, ahem, "organizers." If those folks had their way, we'd all be sitting around the campfire beating on rocks, whining, and calling it entertainment. Ooops, sorry. Beating on rocks is instrumental.

    FAE is itself a product of an individualized ethic. It is a one dimensional personal and social hermeneutic which makes little or no allowance for subtlety, nuance, circumstance. It is also a way for those with power and social control to bless smuggness and humbug with respectability. Whitewashed tombs full of the bones of fearful thinking. Theology which comes from FAE-thinking is nice, neat, tidy, and painless, ready with easy bromides and solutions for real suffering and personal doubt.

    From a positive angle: what you are talking about has to do with awareness in terms of self, others, and creation. "Examine self," "consider the body," and "and then eat and drink" as St. Paul puts it.

    The 12 step program is a helpful guide. Step 1 says: "We admitted we were [by ourselves] powerless over . . . ." Admission (confession) occurs first with self, then in the context of others. Confession is the only power any of us has for substantial change. But problems arise is when our circumstances are favorable and "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world." Then we have no "need" to "confess our sins to one another." Our heart is hidden from our very self.


    George C.

  2. Well Richard, let's just say that it was their loss -- the Portland area churches. Their fear of controversy means they lost out on important information.

    Good and helpful post!!! Too often we do think we're strong enough, when we're not. Circumstances do have a lot to do with what we do and why we do them.

  3. An interesting approach (which you may be taking soon already) is how we view self and others differently in terms of FAE, and within that the different perspective on success and failure. So if I am successful, of course it was because I have a high level of ability... or I am a successful person... however, if i failed it had to have been the situation. And I believe (correct me if I am wrong) empirically the pattern is the opposite for how we view other people.

    What this brings to mind for me is two different psychological facets need to come along for this more nuanced understanding of evil. Specifically, we need to (as you said here) view our accomplishments and abilities in more realistic terms. That way we can sometimes see our success as a result of our situation, building humility and a reality of our dependence (I am thinking specifically in ManIntryian terms... in Dependent Rational Animals). Secondly, I think the way we see others must continually involve perspective taking and empathy... In other words, if we tend to see others as situationally successful and dispositional failures... we need to be able to empathize and take their perspective to see that situation *evil or good* in more realistic light.

  4. Peter,

    Good comment about empathy. I struggle with being empathetic towards victimizers and towards victims who become victimizers. But I am making progress.


    C. S. Lewis once gave an illustration about a person who says, "That's not like me," after doing something hateful to another. Saying that is like inviting someone to your home for tea. That someone sits down, a rat comes out of the basement and bites the guest on the leg and you say: "I'm sorry. I don't have rats in my house."

    All of us need to get in touch with our inner rat.


    George C.

  5. I long for the day when we beg those who make us uncomfortable to come teach us what we do not know instead of insisting that those just like us come and make us feel better about what we already do.

    I really like what you would have said to them and it definitely benefits me in some struggling I've been doing lately.

    Just thought you should know you're appreciated.

  6. I had a social psych professor argue that being aware of the FAE does little to prevent one from falling victim to the FAE...not to get too neuro-reductionistic on the topic, but our brains will always try to simplify and automatize the information we use in processing decisions. Thus FAE will always rear its ugly head when the changes are subtle or masked by poly-factoral shifts that cover up the one situational piece of information we need....in other words, we are hard-wired for the FAE. On a brighter note, at least everyone else is wired that way too...

    Great post...I'll be interested to see where this leads.

  7. Hi all, just FYI the good people in Portland are blameless. The organizers are ACU people.

    I had not thought about it but I think the confessional stance is exactly what I'm trying to articulate. I think in the confession-less church we are at much greater risk to lapse into a false sense of moral security.

    Bob and abby,

    I had not thought of that, but a kind of reverse-FAE does allow us to view others with empathy. There but for the grace of God...

    You're probably right, cognitive heuristics will always be basins of attributional attraction. But perhaps a little self-educaiton can help!

  8. I found that particularly interesting, because it reminded me (yet again) of general semantics (the starting point of e-prime, which I've discussed with you a bit). The difference here is that FAE seems to question the predication rather than the 'is-ness', but ultimately I think it goes to the same place.

    It did inspire me to lay out some of my own thoughts about general semantics, some that have been stewing for some time. Here if you're interested.

    Unfortunate about the speaking opportunity. Controversy tends to invite conversation, and I'd think that would be desirable. Of course, there's always the good chance that I don't know what I'm talking about.


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