Whenever we witness something harmful or unexpected, we humans look to make attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Social psychologists have been studying the way we make those attributions for the last half century. Part of that research, known as attribution theory, focuses on how we draw inferences about how much control people exert over their behavior: the more control they appear to exert, the more we hold them responsible or blameworthy for the consequences of their actions. To assess control, we draw inferences about, among other things, whether the person acted volitionally or intentionally and about the person’s motivation. When we think an injurer acted intentionally and maliciously we attribute blame — which is accompanied by a desire to punish the injurer and to compensate the victim.
This naive psychology of blame attributions is fairly automatic and depends on more or less instantaneous impressions. And although our attributions result from inferences of, among other things, intent and motive, we are hampered by the fact that we cannot directly access someone else’s motives or intentions (in fact, we’re not very good at ascertaining our own). And, often, the individuals who we are judging have an interest in presenting themselves as innocent — regardless of the truth of the matter. In making attributions about another person’s harm-causing actions, therefore, we are often forced to rely on imperfect external cues. Conflict between individuals and groups often emerges precisely because attributional ambiguity leads to divergent interpretations and reactions. What a victim might perceive as outrageous, an injurer might construe as merely unfortunate or even richly deserved. The legal system is caught up in these attributional contests every day. For instance, most of tort law — in doctrine and in practice — is devoted to the question of resolving competing attributional accounts for the same personal injury.
One important cue regarding someone’s intentions and motives is the number of times that they engaged in the sort of behavior that caused the harm. If a person engages in harm-causing conduct one time, we may, absent other indicia of intent, call that “an accident.” The harm elicits some emotion, but it is rarely one of intense anger toward the injurer or sympathy for the victim. If that person engages in the very same conduct a second time — particularly if the acts are temporally proximate — then automatically and instantaneously, our attributions and emotions change. In an instant, in response to behavior that is otherwise identical, we can go from relatively indifferent to indignant.
This week’s final inning in the three-game rivalry-hyped series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. View the (five-minute) video below to see what we mean.
Two identical pitches. Two very different reactions on the part of the umpire, the batter, the fans, and some of the players. One fastball thrown at the batter’s head may have been an accident. But two, one after the other, seems pretty clearly intentional and maliciously motivated. Sports writer Ian O’Connor summarized his reaction as follows:
Joba Chamberlain did it on purpose. Two nuclear-powered fastballs, back-to-back, raging over the head belonging to Kevin Youkilis were indeed thrown with vile intentions. The first one, clocked at 98 mph, sounded like this: See you at Fenway in two weeks. The second one, clocked at 99 mph, sounded like this: See you in the ALCS after that.
Though never explicit in his wording, Youkilis made similar attributions after the game:
Two balls go at your head and the guy has a zero ERA and he’s around the strike zone pretty good, any man is going to go out there and think that the balls were intended to hit him in the head. I didn’t see any other pitches going that far out of the strike zone.
Of course, we can’t be completely sure if the pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, was truly head hunting. If one accident is possible, then so is two; plus we really don’t know what was happening inside Chamberlain’s head. So we look at the circumstances: “could he have been exacting revenge for something earlier in the game? What other motives did he have one way or the other?” And, in the hope of gleaning more about the interior of the black box of his mind, reporters ask the obvious questions: “did you do that on purpose?,” “what were you thinking?” and so on. To view Chamberlain’s responses to those sorts of questions watch the three-minute video below.
Did you find him convincing? Major League Baseball didn’t, at least not completely. They concluded Chamberlain was sufficiently culpable to warrant an official penalty. Much like our legal system might, the League punished Chamberlain, suspending him two games and fining him $1,000 for “inappropriate actions.” Of course, had Chamberlain menacingly pointed at his temple between the two pitches, the League would have seen more unambiguously into the black box regarding his actual intent and would therefore have imposed a much harsher punishment.
The League’s response may do little to influence the likely payback that is to follow when the Red Sox host the Yankees later this month. Throwing fastballs at the head is a serious attack, one that Red Sox pitchers will want to avenge. Still, the League has intervened in part to prevent the sort of escalating conflicts that, history proves, often occur when attributions of blame between teams or other groups fester. The fact that two sides of a conflict make their attributions in group-affirming ways is a major source of the escalation. Both sides tend to agree on one thing: “They are to blame; we are not.”
Common-law historians tell us that a primary reason for the creation and success of the common law, particularly criminal and tort law, was to serve as a substitute for the “self-help” option when one person’s acts harmed another, and divergent attributions led to escalations of violence between individuals and groups. The common law provided a relatively neutral third party — be it a judge or jury of one’s peers — who could hear the conflicting accounts and reach a fair apportionment of damages or penalty based on perceived culpability. Assuming the institution remained credible, parties tended to live with those decisions and to be less eager to resort to self-help.
The same sorts of automatic attributional tendencies and dynamics that influence how we feel about a particular player on a particular team, or even how we decide to punish tort or criminal defendants can be found in all of our interactions — small and big. They even lie at the heart of many international and global conflicts.
Indeed, the attributional inferences drawn in responses to Chamberlain’s two head-oriented pitches were surprisingly similar to the attributional inferences drawn by most Americans in response to the World Trade Center Bombings on 9/11.
When the first plane hit the first tower, there was a strong sense of sadness for the victims, but the incident was automatically presumed by most to have been an unfortunate accident. It was developing into a tragic story, but not different in kind from other large accidents. The second plane crashing into the second tower completely changed all that in an unthinking instant. An accident, over which a pilot exercised little control, turned into an intentional, deliberate, purposeful, hateful attack by terrorists on “us.” To see what we mean, view the (nine- minute) video below of news coverage of the event as it unfolded.
Two identical explosions. Two very different reactions.
It was the power of the second set of reactions that fueled, not only the national urge to rescue and assist victims, but also the widespread craving to punish the evildoers. Consider the varying reactions of President Bush to the first and second crash, as later told to Dan Balz and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post:
Bush remembers senior adviser Karl Rove bringing him the news, saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane. In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 out of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Based on what he was told, Bush assumed it was an accident. “This is pilot error,” the president recalled saying. “It’s unbelievable that somebody would do this.” Conferring with Andrew H. Card Jr., his White House chief of staff, Bush said, “The guy must have had a heart attack.”
. . . At 9:05 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, smashed into the South Tower of the trade center. Bush was seated on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Bush remembers exactly what he thought: “They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war.”
No doubt, our assessments of the intentions and motives of the evildoers were correct: The bombings were intentional and maliciously motivated. Still, there may be lessons to be learned from the Major League or from our domestic legal system. When America insisted on going to war with Iraq without meaningfully engaging the world community or taking seriously the concerns of even its allies, it was short-circuiting its best hope for avoiding regret. Maybe our leaders should be obligated to seek and defer to the judgment of relatively neutral third parties, precisely because history shows that the self-help option is as attractive as it is counterproductive. Sometimes we wisely build institutions to limit our options precisely because we know that our desire to take certain options in the future will lead to tragedy. Sometimes we wisely alter our situation because we cannot trust our disposition.
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The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.