The Fundamental Attribution Error in American Politics

Something that is rampant in current political discourse especially among Progressives engaged in their uncivil war: “In social psychology, the f\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 (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation’s external factors. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration.”

Everyone is suggesting that the policy limitations of the Clinton and Obama Presidencies and the evolution of Hillary Clinton’s policy stances are down to character not circumstances and I think that a mistake.

There are occasionally politicians who seem to grab a situation and make history turn in a different direction: Lenin, Hitler, FDR, Gorbachev, Thatcher, Reagan whoever, but they are rare as in personal life: I know few people who kick the Fundamental Attribution Error in the way they live: most of us are situation driven. But as an historian, I would suggest that even those who grab and shift the path of history are reacting to the situational circumstance that gives them an opening to do so.

So I liked to begin with, the fact that Bernie Sanders is himself trying to defy the Fundamental Attribution Error, (driving an agenda the circumstances don’t favor) but I don’t like the way his supporters are failing to understand that 1) we face a fascist opponent bent on switching us onto a deeply reactionary path and 2) Bernie’s agenda is not likely to work in our situation with GOP control of the House 2) Realist politicians recognize circumstances and try to Tai Chi them in a better direction incrementally. But hey I may be wrong and over determined by my circumstances. smile emoticon

Though Karl Marx, no slouch for the vision thing said: ““Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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2 Responses to The Fundamental Attribution Error in American Politics

  1. Michael Walsh says:

    I’m having a problem with the next-to-last paragraph. The topic has been the Fundamental Attribution Error, but it seems to have changed to the Fundamental Situational Error, which hasn’t been discussed. Then you have two items labelled with “2).” It seems that you are trying to suggest that Bernie is not a “realist politician,” one who recognizes circumstances and works for incremental improvement. Are you saying that Bernie does not recognize the importance of situational circumstance and instead reflects the Fundamental Attribution Error? I may agree with you, but I don’t think you’ve made the case that Bernie and his positions and his followers reflect the Fundamental Attribution Error.

    • Thanks that was a typo I have corrected on Situational. I don’t think Bernie is a situational realist and that is maybe what is appealing about him. He does defy circumstance; but now he is not the candidate likely to face Trump, my point is about his followers, and their attitude to Hillary Clinton that does to me reflect the fundamental attribution error: ascribing her policy stances and changes to character rather than changing circumstances. She thought Single Payer was the way to go in the early 90s. She got burned. She now thinks it is likely a bridge too far. That is not a character flaw anymore than President Clinton’s triagulation was a character flaw, more a way to navigate scoundrel times. Hope this helps.

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