Mar 01 2018

Attribution Error, Straw Men, and the Principle of Charity

Why do people argue so much in the comments on social media platforms? That question has given rise to a new area of social psychology, but a partial answer, I think, rests on several principles of critical thinking.

Often such principles are deeply intertwined, not isolated ideas. Sometimes principles are so closely related it is better to discuss them as a package, because the relationship to other principles is core to their understanding.

What I have noticed is that often misunderstanding stems from making false assumptions about what the other person is saying and their motive for doing so. These false assumptions tend to be in a similar direction, a phenomenon psychologists have called the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency to ascribe behavior to external factors when considering our own behavior, but internal factors when considering the behavior of others.

There are a couple of reasons for this error. The first is simple – we are living our life and are therefore intimately familiar with all the external factors that affect our behavior. We are not as familiar (and may be completely unaware) of external factors that may be affecting someone else’s behavior. Second, we want to feel good about ourselves, and so we are very generous in our interpretation of our own motives, personality, and ability. We are out own most fanatical advocates.

So, when you see a parent yelling at a child in public, you might think that they are a bad parent, or an angry person with little self-control. However, if you are that parent you are unlikely to come to those same conclusions. Rather, you will attribute your behavior to the fact that your child has been especially naughty and frustrating, that you are especially stressed, and you just reached a breaking point that any reasonable person would reach.

To generalize this, when we see someone do something bad we tend to assume they are a bad person, rather than a good (or just typical) person in a bad or unusual situation, or who just made a mistake.

Similarly, if someone makes a claim with which we disagree it is easy and tempting to assume that they are generally ignorant, they are insincere, or perhaps they are even a shill for a nefarious group or have some other dark motives. We tend to ascribe negative traits to that person (they are greedy, foolish, gullible, etc,) – to assume their opinion is due entirely to internal factors.

While personality certainly does play a role, there is also a host of external factors likely at play, and perhaps they may be dominant.

The tendency to ascribe negative traits or motivations to someone with whom we disagree is increased by the desire to portray ourselves in a positive light. The more negative our perceived enemies, than by extension the more righteous we are. Their motives are dark, and by comparison my motives are pure.

This tendency has been weaponized by ideological groups. It is common for members of such groups to accuse their ideological opponents of being evil.

We know from psychological experiments that the negative assumptions flowing from the attribution error are likely to be wrong, that it is probable we do not have all the information necessary to truly judge another’s actions or statements, and that we are massively biased in our own favor. This often results in forming a straw man of the other person’s position when we disagree with them.

This is how these two critical thinking principles are related – the attribution error feeds the straw man fallacy. The attribution error can lead to forming a cartoon of the other person’s position, constructed out of our own self-serving assumptions. The straw man fallacy is further fed by the desire to have an easy target to knock down. We also might experience cognitive dissonance if someone else makes a valid point against our position, so we can resolve that dissonance by altering their valid point into an invalid straw man.

All these psychological forces lead to entrenched camps of people who are certain they are not only correct, but virtuous, battling against others who are not only wrong, but evil. So what’s the fix?

That is where the principle of charity comes in. This principle states that you should consciously assume the best about your opponent and their position (at least until proven otherwise), and to argue against the best version of their position (not the weakest version). This is good practice for a number of reasons.

If your goal is to arrive at the strongest position (not necessarily your starting position), and to correct error, than you will want to challenge your own position with the best possible arguments. If they can withstand such challenges, they are more likely to be valid.

But also the principle of charity is a needed correction to our own biases and self-serving tendencies. The principle is like a corrective lens fixing a known distortion in our perception. We are therefore likely to be much closer to the truth in our understanding of someone else’s position, or interpreting the reasons for their behavior, than if we ignore the principle and follow our own biases.

Applying the principle of charity means that initially we should suspend judgement. Do not jump to conclusions based on initial or superficial information. Recognize that people are complex, life is complex, and it is likely you do not have all the relevant information. When you see that parent lose it with their child, assume you don’t have enough information to judge them. You might also even imagine external factors that may be in play.

When arguing with someone else, also do not jump to straw men conclusions, or assume that they are holding positions they have not explicitly stated. There is a tendency, when a person expresses a view that is associated with one perspective, that they therefore endorse every view associated with that perspective. If someone endorses a liberal position, for example, we label them a liberal, and assume they hold every liberal position, even extreme straw men liberal positions.

In the extreme we can end up arguing against a cartoon fiction that exists only in our own minds. We have constructed an internal narrative, and other people are just players in that narrative. We can therefore pigeonhole people into simplistic archetypes, and treat them as such.

To break out of even the milder forms of this requires following the principle of charity, which requires meaningfully engaging with other people. Listen to or read what they are actually saying, try to understand the best interpretation of their position, and don’t make assumptions or fill in the gaps with your own narrative. If something doesn’t make sense, ask them to explain or clarify.

Finally – do not assume other people are evil, or have nefarious motives, or negative personality traits simply because they hold a position with which you disagree. Of course, there are bad people out there, but they are the exceptions. Most people believe they are virtuous and want to be perceived that way. If you start with the assumption that people mean well, you are more likely to be correct, and you will better be able to engage with them. If they actually are a psychopathic con-artist, this will become clear, and you have done your due diligence after giving them the benefit of the doubt.

(To be clear, this is all in the context of having a discussion. I would apply different principles when dealing with someone trying to sell me something.)

This about the people with whom you engage on social media or in meat space. The most stubborn, frustrating, and misguided people tend to be those who commit the attribution error, make straw men out of your positions, and accuse you of a host of negative attributes and motivations. Don’t be that person.

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