September 14, 2013 | 7
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
“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.