“Make no judgments where you have no compassion.” Anne McCaffrey
Systematic errors are often made when you assess or try to find reasons for your own and others’ behaviors (Heider, 1958). These assessment errors are generally referred to as an attribution bias.
Research shows that we often exhibit a specific kind of attribution bias when interpreting and explaining the behavior of in-group versus out-group members. In other words, we tend to make attributions which protect the group to which we belong. This common error is known as the ultimate attribution error (UAE).
The UAE is the tendency to internally attribute negative out-group and positive in-group behavior, and to externally attribute positive out-group and negative in-group behavior.
Essentially, the UAE tends to explain an out-group’s negative behavior as flaws in their character or personality, and to describe an out-group’s positive behavior as a result of chance or circumstance.
Furthermore, this is the belief that positive acts performed by in-group members are as a result of their personality, whereas, if an in-group member behaves negatively (which is considered to be rare), it is a result of situational factors.
These research findings have important implications for understanding other social psychological topics, such as the development and persistence of out-group prejudice and stereotypes. (Hewstone, 1990). UAE double standards make it virtually impossible for out-group members to break free of prejudice against them; as their positive actions are explained away, and their failures and shortcomings are used against them.
In 1991, Hunter, Stringer, and Watson conducted a study on how real instances of violence are explained by Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Catholic students made predominantly external attributions for their own group’s violence but internal, dispositional attributions for Protestant violence. Protestant students attributed their own group’s violence to external causes and Catholic violence to internal causes.
Another study found that among Hindus in southern India, different attributions were given for exactly the same behavior performed by Hindu and Muslim actors. Results showed that Hindus attributed external factors to undesirable acts committed by Muslims, and vice-versa (Taylor & Jaggi, 1974).
In a 2×2 between-group design led by Morris & Peng, American or Chinese participants learned about a recent murder committed by an American or Chinese individual. Participants received the media coverage for the murder, and were asked to weight the dispositional and situational explanations for the cause of the number they reported.
As the UAE predicts, American participants were biased toward dispositional explanations for the Chinese murder suspect, and biased toward situational explanations for the American murder suspect. Similarly, the Chinese participants attributed dispositional causes for the American murder suspect and situational causes for the Chinese murder suspect.
In a 2×2 between-group design by Birt Duncan, White participants viewed a Black or White individual (harm-doer) ambiguously shoving a Black or White individual (victim). Duncan found that white American college students categorized the same pushing behavior as ‘violent’ if perpetrated by a black actor, but as ‘just playing around’ when perpetrated by a white actor.
In general, when a Black harm-doer shoved another person (whether they were Black or White), their behavior was attributed their high dispositional levels of violence (internal). On the other hand, when a White harm-doer shoved another person (whether they were Black or White), their behavior was generally attributed to external constraints.
Results from Duncan’s study suggested that the White students participating in the experiment possessed a lower threshold for labeling a behavior as violent when the harm-doer is Black (out-group) than when the harm-doer is White (in-group).
What’s interesting to note about these examples, is that participants aren’t totally blinding themselves to reality. They are picking out and emphasizing the details that support their own group, while subtly discrediting the other group. This is commonly done in society by explaining away our own group’s failures, while attributing our successes to superior skills and intrinsic talent.
- A review of 58 different experiments found that on traditionally masculine tasks, male successes were more likely than female successes to be attributed to ability, whereas male failures were more likely than female failures to be attributed to bad luck or lack of effort (Swim & Sanna, 1996).
- Students were put into a mock jury situation with identical details, apart from the name of the defendant. When the defendant’s name was Carlos Ramirez, he was found guilty more often than if he was called Robert Johnson. (Bodenhausen, 1988)
- In the 1976 Super Bowl, fans of each team were asked about the cause of their own and the other team’s moment-by-moment successes during the match. Each thought their own team’s success to be a result of good play, but when the opposing team did well, they minimized the influence of talent.
- Children at both elite private schools and more mediocre, state schools were asked to explain exam performance at both institutions. Those from the private schools said they did well because they were cleverer and had higher academic standards. Those at the state school pointed out the privileges that students at the elite school received and were not so impressed with their intelligence.
Prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes of disliked out-groups leads to derogating attributions, whereas the need for positive enhancement and protection of the in-group leads to group-serving attributions. People are therefore more likely to make internal attributions for their group’s positive and socially desirable behavior, and external attributions for the same positive behavior displayed by out-groups. In contrast, negative or socially undesirable in-group behavior is usually explained externally, whereas negative out-group behavior is more frequently explained internally.
Although an UAE is often used as a subconscious shortcut to assist with making decisions, it is not a reasonable, compassionate, or accurate way to form an opinion on another person and/or group of people. It is important to be cognizant before and during the times, when referencing a person, you use phrases like ‘they are all like that,’ ‘all,’ ‘everyone,’ ‘they,’ and ‘always.’ What gives you the right to deny this person a unique identity as a person? Wouldn’t you appreciate it if someone from an outside group gave you the same respect?
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” – Maya Angelou
“I get how it can be news to some of you that people are victimized by systems legitimated by your nation, countrymen, and god. But I’m black and female and southern. I call that Tuesday.” – Tressie McMillan Cottom
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; …” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-8
“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.” – Samuel L. Jackson
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galations 5:14
“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” – James Baldwin
“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer
“Most middle-class whites have no idea what it feels like to be subjected to police who are routinely suspicious, rude, belligerent, and brutal.” – Benjamin Spock
“Perhaps, if you weren’t so busy regarding my shortcomings, you’d find that I do possess redeeming qualities, discreet as they may be. I notice when the sky is blue. I smile down at children. I laugh at any innocent attempt at humor. I quietly carry the burdens of others as though they were my own. And I say ‘I’m sorry’ when you don’t. I am not without fault, but I am not without goodness either.” – Richelle E. Goodrich
“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” – Frederick Buechner
“The police can go to downtown Harlem and pick up a kid with a joint in the streets. But they can’t go into the elegant apartments and get a stockbroker who’s sniffing cocaine.” – Noam Chomsky
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7: 1-5
“Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” Henry Ward Beecher
Duncan, B. L. (1976). “Differential social perception and attribution if intergroup violence: Testing the lower limits of stereotyping of Blacks”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34 (4): 75–93.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley. p. 322.
Hewstone, M. (1990). The ultimate attribution error: A review of the literature on intergroup causal attribution. European journal of social psychology, 20(4), 311-335.
Morris, Michael W.; Peng, Kaiping (1994). “Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (6): 949–971