Reasons for Breaking a Windshield

It’s been some years since psychologist Lee D. Ross discovered a phenomenon he called the “fundamental attribution error.” The name has gone through various changes (“attribution effect”; “correspondence bias”) but the thinking that the term describes has been experimentally proven time and again.

Here’s how it goes: for those people we don’t know, we attribute bad actions to disposition and ignore the situation; for those we know well, we generally attribute good actions to disposition and bad actions to situation. (This works with animals too, I suppose.)

For example, let’s say you are stuck in traffic. You hear a car horn and then see a guy jump out of his car, grab a baseball bat, and smash the windshield of the car honking at him. Clearly, that is one bad guy! He was born bad to the bone! Bad disposition.

Now let’s say you are driving your niece home from baseball practice one afternoon. You’re stuck in traffic and some jerk is laying on the horn; your niece grabs her baseball bat, jumps out of the car, and smashes the windshield of the person honking.

Now, clearly, your niece — your darling sibling’s darling child — is not a bad person. It’s just that she is really tense right now — she’s been sick; things are tough at school for her; she was rushing home in order to get cleaned up to go to church.

Disposition and situation.

It goes deeper: When you pull up to your niece’s apartment building, she hops out and smashes your windshield. For no reason! For no reason! After all, you had every right to scold her for breaking that guy’s windshield!

Yes, we are more likely to consider that niece as being bad to the bone than we are to consider ourselves bad to the bone (there was always something a bit off with that sibling, wasn’t there?). Fundamentally, we all have a mantra: “I am not a bad person. Situations sometimes make me do bad things.”

And another mantra: “All those people . . . they’re just bad.”

Given this fundamental human propensity, those so inclined can easily manipulate us. Nations. Races. Genders. Religions. Neighborhoods. Political dispositions. Membership in groups or clubs. You name it, and we can see a difference between us and them, and our first, gut, response is “those are bad people. They were born bad.”’

But we don’t have to go with what our gut tells us. We can stop and say, “Darn. I just committed the fundamental attribution error.”