Fundamental attribution error – what is it?
In social psychology, fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasise personality-based explanations for an individual’s behaviour, and under-emphasise situational and environmental explanations.
“Psychologists refer to the inappropriate use of dispositional explanation as the fundamental attribution error, that is, explaining situation-induced behavior as caused by enduring character traits of the agent.” – Jon Elster.
When political journalists examine politics, it’s often said that the emphasis is placed on personality over policy.
Fundamental attribution error in political media – an example
In the right-wing The Times, Matthew Parris writes about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s behaviour and personality.
“Over the personal side of Johnson’s life — the wives, girlfriends and children — I draw a veil, preferring not to punch at bruised lives. All, political and personal, share this: they got themselves mixed up with a superlative confidence trickster. Believe me, I know the confiding wink that for a moment makes you feel you’re the only person in the room. We can add a range of newspaper editors, magazine proprietors and party leaders, tricked to their disadvantage but who live to tell the tale…
“When contemplating this column I was asked whether we might finally step back from close focus on the present prime minister, look more widely at rascality and high public office and draw some general conclusions. But I must conclude that there are none. Johnson is a one-off.”
– Boris Johnson leaves a scar on all who deal with him. 7th January 2022.
On Twitter, the popular “centrist” James O’Brien responds to the article with:
“Matthew Parris absolutely eviscerates Boris Johnson in The Times today. A calmly complete character assassination & a journalistic masterclass. I’ve never read anything quite like it.”. 8th January, 2022.
But, to the non-political journalist, the article’s description of British politics is deeply bizarre. It mentions the “deputy lieutenant of Berkshire”, “He believes in Conservative aims and doesn’t seem to want anything for himself.”, “private secretary to the Queen”, “a man who has built his reputation on discretion”, “Johnson’s own brother, Jo, shunted off to the Lords” etc.
Neither Parris or O’Brien have taken this opportunity to point out that Boris Johnson is a symptom of a deeply weird structure, instead the focus remains on the Prime Minister’s personality.
In contrast, former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall has taken to Twitter to write about political structure, not personality. Her comment on Parris’ article:
“Strong words by Parris, but not sure I agree with his contention that BJ is uniquely awful; implication that without him we’d be ok. Problems run wider and deeper in the party which supported him.”
And on 7th January 2022, she wrote:
“I woke up this morning feeling strangely unsettled… and realised that despite (or perhaps, because of) 30+yrs in conventional govt service, I’m now starting to question everything I thought I once knew about my country and its institutions…
Why does fundamental attribution error occur in political media?
- It’s easier for journalists to write about colourful personalities, than to write about dry, impersonal, political structure.
The quote that floats around the web is: “Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.”
- The cult of savviness, as described by Jay Rosen. “In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be.”
- Political journalists are filtered by their employers to be friendly to power, to not examine political structure.
As Noam Chomsky said to Andrew Marr:
“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
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