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Atonement, Forgiveness, And Our Most Fundamental Error.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Today is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Although it is often called the “holiest day of the Jewish year,” what is notable about Yom Kippur is not the fact that it is particularly holy, nor is it the fact that many Jews you know might be particularly hungry today. Yom Kippur is notable because it is really all about the unequivocal importance of one thing — atonement. We sit in our religious services all day, reflecting on the need to atone for our sins. However, it is stressed that we cannot just do this by showing up to services and praying. We must also directly ask for forgiveness from those that we have wronged in the past year; and, in turn, we must be willing to grant forgiveness to those whom we believe have wronged us.

This past week has been a particularly challenging one for me, a fact that is only made more salient by my recent reflection on Yom Kippur. This was a week filled with a lot of stress – a major disagreement with friends (an unpleasantry that doesn’t happen all too often, thankfully, though this relative infrequency makes it especially painful when it does occur), dissertation work, transitioning back into a new semester of teaching, losing a flash drive for a period of about 24 hours (always enough to give me a few panic attacks). I had to face the unavoidable fact that I’ve once again found myself over-scheduled and under-rested this semester, and brace myself for the uncomfortable reality of having to let go of a few commitments and inevitably let people down. And of course there were more things — smaller stresses here and there that are not worth mentioning, and larger ones that are less appropriate for a public blog. But in a way, it’s almost perfect that Yom Kippur has arrived for me after such a truly stressful, overwhelming week. If nothing else, this week has served as a critical reminder to me of one of the most consistent and foundational facts in all of social psychology. The environment that surrounds us — those stressors, obligations, demands, fights, and other situational pushes that we constantly experience — have a strong, disconcerting influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we’re going to reflect on atonement, it must serve us well to acknowledge just how important our surrounding environments can be when it comes to events that require repentance — and just how often we might fail to acknowledge the situation’s strong role in our lives. If someone were to judge me for anything that I said or did this week, I know that I would hope they would have accounted for the numerous stressors and other dramatic ongoings that could be influencing my words and actions. Unfortunately, given what I know of social psychology, I’m also well aware that they probably would not have done so — and to be fair, I likely wouldn’t be immediately prone to doing so either, if the tables were turned.

Take the results of a classic study from 1967. Participants were told to read an essay about “Castro’s Cuba,” where half of the essays took a pro-Castro stance and the other half were anti-Castro. Additionally, half of the readers were told that the essayists had freely chosen their positions, whereas the other half were told that the position had been assigned by a course instructor. Unsurprisingly, when participants thought that the essayist had chosen a position of his/her own volition and they were then asked how pro- or anti-Castro they perceived the writer to be, they believed that the essayist held the stance that he/she endorsed in the essay. However, the truly shocking result emerged for those who read the no choice essays — the essays that had supposedly been crafted by writers who had been assigned a position to endorse, meaning their essays couldn’t really indicate anything truly meaningful about their actual underlying opinions. Even though the readers knew perfectly well that the position had been assigned by an instructor, they were still more likely to ascribe the endorsed stance to the writer’s own personal opinions. On a scale of 10 (extreme anti-Castro) to 70 (extreme pro-Castro), people who read a pro-Castro essay rated the essayists at approximately “60″ on average if they knew that the writers had chosen to advocate for that position…but they still rated them at around a “44″ if they knew that they had not chosen that position of their own volition. Less than the 60, for sure — but far above the “23″ rating for those who had been “assigned” to write an anti-Castro essay.




We can also see how the same sort of thing happened in a study where people were randomly assigned to act as either the “questioner” or the “contestant” in a mock Jeopardy-like trivia game, and a third group of participants were simply asked to watch the quiz show as it unfolded. Even though the Fake-Alex-Trebek questioner was able to make up his own questions, giving him an obvious unfair advantage over the contestant (Fake-Trebek would clearly know all of the answers to his own questions, whereas the contestant might not), neutral observers failed to correct for this, and rated the questioners as significantly more intelligent than the contestants — even though, had the roles been reversed and the contestant been able to make up his/her own questions to ask instead, the ratings likely would have switched. The observers were watching the questioner generate questions, and the contestant fail to answer at least some of them. Instead of attributing this failure to the situation (the realities of the game), they attributed this pattern to the players’ personalities (the questioner must be intelligent, and the contestant must be at least slightly dumber).

This phenomenon has been termed the fundamental attribution error. When we see someone behave a certain way, we are automatically biased towards forming immediate dispositional (trait-based) attributions for their behavior. Fake-Trebek knows all of the Quiz Show answers because he is smart. The essayist wrote a pro-Castro essay because she is pro-Castro. That driver cut you off because he is a jerk. That girl who walked into class 40 minutes late is lazy.

I bring this up today, on Yom Kippur, because if we are going to focus on atonement, it is worth considering how our ability to forgive and forget might be at the whim of our cognitive biases. All too often, we are quick to form dispositional attributions for behaviors that might actually have situational causes — and all too often, those attributions are negative. Perhaps that driver did not cut you off because he is a jerk, but because another car was about to swerve into his lane, or because he had two children in the backseat who had just distracted his attention, or because his wife was in labor and he was rushing to get to the hospital. Maybe that girl had to stop on her way to class because of an emergency, or she just added the class the minute before she walked in, or she was actually accidentally showing up 30 minutes early for the next class. It becomes so much easier to engage in this atonement process and understand where others are coming from once we realize that all too often, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice if our ultimate goal truly is forgiveness. We can often over-perceive the presence of bad intentions arising from other people’s inner traits and personalities, when those bad intentions really might not be there…at all.

Even if you are not Jewish, I invite you — in the spirit of our holiday — to reflect on forgiveness. To reflect on atonement. And to reflect on our biases, which all too frequently lead us astray. As we’ve also just started a New Year (5774) in the Jewish calendar, let’s make it a resolution to try assuming the best intentions in people — and, especially when it comes to negative events, to try considering situations before we jump to blame dispositions.

Jones, Edward E., & Harris, Victor A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1-24.

Ross, Lee D., Amabile, Teresa M., & Steinmetz, Julia L. (1977). Social roles, social control, and biases in social-perception processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 485-494

Image Credits:

“Good Intentions” image available via Creative Commons license through Flickr. Image by James Carlson.

Image of Fidel Castro in the public domain, via Wikipedia.

Graphs made by the blog author based on data from the original papers.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rkipling 11:43 am 09/14/2013

    Learning to be a human being is arduous. It’s still in many ways a mystery to me, and I’ve had a considerable head start. The opinion of a stranger won’t matter much, but I’ll offer it anyway.

    While it may be that we tend to find what we seek, I see in your writing a bit of pure metaphysical idealism. Perhaps your faith is part of the source? In the view of this agnostic, your struggle for what is right is admirable. Consider that struggle a form of continuing atonement.

    Tzom kal

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  2. 2. paulus 12:48 pm 09/14/2013

    One of the best descriptions of fundamental attribution error is given by John K. Galbraith, in A Short History of Financial Euphoria. As Galbraith wrote, “Money is the measure of capitalist achievement. The More money, the greater the achievement and the intelligence that supports it…
    “In fact, such reverence for the possession of money again indicates the shortness of memory, the ignorance of history, and the consequent capacity for self- and popular delusion…
    This extends of course to large financial institutions. “The larger the capital assets and income flow controlled, the deeper the presumed financial, economic, and social perception.
    “In practice, the individual or individuals at the top of these institutions are often there because…theirs was mentally the most predictable and…bureaucratically the least inimical of the contending talent.”
    In other words, he has risen to the highest level of mediocrity in his bureaucracy. This is equally true in banks and private corporations as it is in government bureaucracies. Unfortunately, few pay attention to this cognitive deficit.
    More’s the pity. We could have saved US taxpayers $14 trillion in bailing out these financial geniuses if we had been aware of this sadly human cognitive error.
    A bank robber is a bank robber, and usually the ones wearing suits get away with the most loot. Is it because they’re so smart or we’re so stupid?

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  3. 3. Schaps 7:42 pm 09/14/2013

    Interesting as the attribution psychology may be that does not in any way diminish the requirement of the perpetrator of injury to effect atonement. It is not the responsibility of the victim to understand the perpetrator. If that were so would it be necessary to understand the psychology of Nazi murderers? No! The burden for atonement rests upon the perpetrator and no one else! Full atonement especially on Yom Kippur require a process which Maimonides has described in detail. Anything less than that is a preposterous and meaningless parody. No amount of fasting will atone for murder and I need not understand any attribution psychology to appease a murderer.

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  4. 4. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 8:45 pm 09/14/2013

    Thanks for the straw man argument. I’m sure that many of the people who read this today *definitely* came away from it thinking that my main thesis was that we should forgive all the murderers and the Nazis.

    Also, having just been to Yom Kippur services today, I can promise you that — at least in the service I attended and the prayer book that I was reading from — it was stressed at least a dozen times that the atonement process consists of both asking for forgiveness and granting it to those who have harmed us, either “deliberately or unintentionally.” The Rabbi’s entire sermon during the particular service that I attended this morning was about how it can often be harder to be on the “forgiving” end of the process than on the “asking for forgiveness” end, but that it’s important for us to engage in both of those processes on a day like today. There was an entire “reading responsively” section in the middle of my service where we were essentially encouraged to reflect on the process of forgiving everyone who has hurt us in the past year. So no. The burden for atonement certainly does not rest solely upon the perpetrator and “no one else” — and if that’s the version of things in the services or readings that you have been receiving on this holiday, I can at least tell you that it’s certainly not universal throughout Judaism or throughout Yom Kippur services.

    Finally, any insinuation that anyone’s personal manifestation of faith is “preposterous” or a “meaningless parody” is highly offensive. Yom Kippur is an important day to many people, some of whom are highly religious, some of whom simply attend services and fast on this one day of the year, and some of whom are not perfect Jews but try to reflect on the meaning of the day and do what they can in the spirit of atonement and forgiveness anyway. Belittling that is cruel — and, ironically, quite far from the spirit of a holiday that is all about looking for the good in others, forgiveness, and working towards a greater sense of peace and united humanity in the world.

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  5. 5. rkipling 9:18 pm 09/14/2013

    I wonder if their statements reflect their own fear? Someone at peace feels no hatred.

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  6. 6. karae 1:27 am 09/15/2013

    I know less on this subject than I would like- the forgiveness you speak of has no strings attached, and this makes sense because sometimes there is no way to attach material value to wrongs or forgiveness. However, I wonder if there is any room (or requirement) for a person to literally do some measurable thing to atone, such as helping the person wronged in some manner. Such action might be good for both parties, and maybe free individuals from the idea that atonement is merely a feeling rather than a righting of one’s past actions through thought and work. I like the idea of forgiving people outright, however, no matter why or how.

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  7. 7. Satya Narayan Tiwary 5:42 pm 09/16/2013

    To forgive, forget and atone are extraordinary human qualities.

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