Where Logic Meets Love

The Olympics, Politics, and Attribution Error

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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The Olympics, Politics, and Attribution Error | Faith Permeating Life

During the 2012 Olympics the past two weeks, a lot of people took to social media to become amateur judges, tweeting about where athletes slipped up or who was underscored.

It wasn't just the competitions and performances that were deemed comment-worthy, though. There was plenty of judgment on people who didn't seem thrilled enough to receive a silver or bronze medal or who were more unhappy about their own failures than happy for others' successes.

And so I heard this over and over: "I would be happy just to be in the Olympics!"

The implication, of course, is that the competitors who didn't seem perpetually happy to be there -- regardless of the outcome -- were utterly ungrateful for their great fortune to be competing on an international stage.

This seems to me to be a kind of attribution error, this idea that we, the commentators, are somehow cut from a better cloth, so that in the same exact situation, we wouldn't be so focused on winning, or so disappointed with coming in second, or so ungrateful for the opportunity to be on TV. That it's something fundamentally inferior about this person that is making them act differently than what we perceive to be the right way to act.

We, however, are probably wrong.

Humans are pretty terrible at estimating how we would feel in some future or hypothetical situation, something laid out in great detail in Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness. Basically, when we think about how we would feel about competing in the Olympics, we're thinking about our current self being plopped down into the Olympic games.

And yeah, if I suddenly found myself competing in the Olympics, my first thought (aside from, "I am completely and utterly unqualified to be here and will probably make a complete fool of myself") would probably be how exciting it was to be competing in such a globally important event, televised throughout the world, not "MUST WIN GOLD NOW."

But the amazing athletes in the Olympics aren't just like me. Many of them, particularly those from the United States and other affluent countries, have been training for years and years -- some practically since they could walk. They practice for hours every day. Everything from what they eat to how much sleep they get is intended to help them perform their very best. And they've been competing -- again and again and again. For some of them, this is their second, third, fourth Olympics, and they've got personal bests and past failures looming over them. When they're not practicing, they're talking to the media, where interviewers ask them over and over whether they think they'll bring home a gold medal.

In other words, their life essentially revolves around the goal of doing their very best on the field, the track, the pool, or the rings. And at the Olympics, the very best you can do is gold. So can you or I really know what it's like to fall short of that all-consuming goal of getting gold?

This is what I've been thinking about lately, and it's seeped into how I think about politics.

(In my attempt to be nonpartisan here, this may come out like a sweeping indictment of our entire political system, which is not my intent. My intent is, as usual, to make you stop and think about your own assumptions.)

I've been thinking about how much of the U.S. political system -- that is, a republic -- requires one person assuming they know how someone completely different from them feels, thinks, and goes about their daily life.

Let's start with Congress (for my non-American readers, or those that skipped government class in high school, this is the branch of government that makes laws). Rather than attempting to make a blanket statement that it's impossible to get elected to Congress without being personally wealthy (because there are exceptions to everything), I'll let the average wealth of members of Congress speak for itself: millions of dollars. And the net worth of those in Congress went up while most Americans' net worth was falling. Fifty-seven members of Congress are in the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

OK, but we all know this, right? Congress is full of rich people, mostly white men, and they're attempting to make laws that affect an entire country of people who are very unlike them in many ways. There are a lot of complex reasons that things are this way, and that they haven't changed much over time.

While it concerns me a great deal that our lawmakers by and large have no idea what it's like to be [a factory worker, a single mom with two jobs, an inner-city high school student... fill in the blank], it concerns me more when they THINK they do.

When I hear political rhetoric that makes it sound like getting a job is easy if you just try hard, or that assumes everyone has access to an adequate education, or that all poor people believe wealth comes through hard work, or that people who rely on government services typically do so because they're too greedy or lazy to spend their own money on the same things... I get frustrated.

Because often, I think, the speaker is thinking about what they would do in that kind of a situation, if they were suddenly plopped down into someone else's life.

When privilege is invisible, you can forget to subtract that out of the equation when imagining what someone else's life is like. But even then, I don't think it's possible to even start to understand what it's like without talking to people. A lot of people.

Lest you think this is just me being on my liberal soapbox again, this is not just me saying, "Congress doesn't understand poor people." I think there are a lot of different people that we, as John Green would say, fail to imagine complexly.

What about wealthy CEOs? Some of the people in Congress may have personal experience being in those shoes, but I don't. I don't know a lot of any wealthy CEOs personally. So when I'm tempted to be utterly flabbergasted at somebody's willingness to put profits above people, I have to stop and remember that I have zero idea what it's like to be under that kind of pressure from stockholders, that insulated by people who all think the same way and have the same goals. I can't say what I would do as CEO of a company any more than I can say what I'd do as an Olympic athlete.

And the president. People love to criticize the president and say what they would do if they were president, but I don't think the average American citizen has any clue what it's like to actually be the president. To have that much responsibility and pressure, to have your every word scrutinized, and most of all, to have to work within the structure of the government -- all branches -- in order to make change happen, which might mean coming up against people who seem to want to do whatever is the opposite of what you want to do.

This misconception about the president's authority means we have this system in which presidential candidates can promise just about anything because most people have zero conception of how the branches of government actually work. (Case in point: People who think the president is responsible for gas prices -- if their party's not in office.)

It also means that most candidates can be accused of having voted "for" something objectionable because people don't realize how many parts most laws have to them, and that someone might have voted for [insert objectionable law] because it was a rider attached to another, completely unrelated law, and in the end it was better to vote for it than be accused of voting against said other law.

And once again we have an attribution error, which causes us to paint other people as "good" or "evil" without feeling we need any situational context. Because clearly it's not what we would have done.

The attribution error is everywhere, but I would venture to guess it's doing the most damage in politics, where average Americans who don't know what it's like to be president or Congressional representative (but think they do) elect a lot of people who don't know what it's like to be an average American (but think they do).

And then, rather than attempting to overcome these limitations of living in a republic, we all continue to make assumptions and sling accusations at one another.

What steps can you take today to be aware of your own attribution errors? How might we account for the attribution errors in our government?

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  1. Hi Jessica - wonderful post. Refreshing and full of food for thought. Taking time to be aware of our attribution errors can help us all grow in the way of compassion. This is a good message for our country, Church and our world.

    1. Thanks, Tracy! There are definitely a lot of situations in which being aware of attribution errors could help people to have more compassion.

  2. I have made this mistake plenty of times and blogging has really awakened me to just how easy it is to do this.

    As for the politics, as a licensed attorney, I understand completely about the law aspect.

    As a Catholic, I believe that abortion is wrong and that marriage is between one man and one woman. (Nothing against gay people, but marriage is special.) As a lawyer, I know that laws against abortion would be difficult to enforce and would have all sorts of unintended consequences and that same-sex couples who choose to live their lives together as a family need legal protection. My political positions based on my knowledge of the law does not mean that I disagree with the Church on issues of faith or morals, even if I disagree with their politics.

    I think that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy does a good job of balancing the two and I respect Joe Biden's views as well.

    1. One of the things I love about blogging and reading blogs is how much it has opened my eyes to other people's experiences. It has helped me challenge my own assumptions by putting my thoughts out there and inviting my readers to tell me what I'm missing. It's humbling, but important, I believe, for someone who wants to seek truth wherever it is found.

      I think there are some assumptions/implications built into the statement "As a Catholic, I believe that abortion is wrong and that marriage is between one man and one woman." It implies that believing something other than this would render one not a Catholic. It's phrasing like this that prompted me to write "I Am a Catholic. I Am Not Every Catholic." I don't think you believe that (that you must believe those two things to be a Catholic), but it's a good example right there of how words can carry implications about other people's experiences and beliefs when really, they're describing your own beliefs / official Catholic teaching.

    2. That makes sense. I understand your point about being Catholic (I have already had to explain that I am not a Rick Santorum type, both politically and religiously) and I would hate for people to make assumptions about me based on my profession.

      As the old joke goes, 99% of lawyers make the rest of them look bad.

    3. One of my good friends used to make lawyer jokes ALL the time growing up because her dad is a lawyer. Then she became a lawyer :)

  3. Amen! When people talk about what they would do if they were in someone else's shoes, what they are imagining is themselves with all their knowledge, opinions, experiences, suddenly plopped into the other person's situation.

    The truth is, everybody's life is different, and people have reasons for making the choices they make.

    1. Exactly! One of the most eye-opening books I read in college, in terms of challenging my own assumptions, was The Working Poor by David Shipler. It had never even occurred to me that there were people who didn't know things like "you must show up to work at the same time every day" or "after you get paid the first time, you get to keep working there." I had been picturing myself with all of my knowledge and experience being in their shoes, and seeing what it's like with that knowledge and experience stripped away was an important insight for me.


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