Confirmation Bias and the Ultimate Attribution Error

Confirmation bias is the tendency to privilege content which affirms existing views over content which challenges them.

The Ultimate Attribution error is the tendency to attribute personality based explanations to the negative behaviors of outgroup members, and situational based explanations to their positive behavior. And vice-versa, it is the tendency to attribute situational based explanations to the negative behavior of in-group members, and personality based explanations to their positive behavior.

The ultimate attribution error is an example of how confirmation bias operates in a social situation. My neighbors, the people towards which I have extended empathy, are good people – so when I see them doing good things, this confirms my belief in their goodness, so I see it as a manifestation of their personality. My enemies, those people towards which I do not extend empathy, are bad people, so if I see them doing something good I attribute this to the situation rather than their personality. Their good behavior challenges my idea of them, so I disregard it by attributing it to their situation, rather than to them.

The ultimate attribution sounds like what we mean when we say that someone is prejudice – but I think that the in/out prejudice can surface as less sophisticated forms of confirmation bias. For instance, last night, as Ron Paul simply began to say that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were “very explicit” about their motivations behind 9/11, strong boos appeared from the audience. There seems to be a fundamental block in people’s minds – they do not even want to hear the enemy as the kind of thing which can give reasons. The enemy’s motivations are pre-characterized (“they hate our freedom”), and if anyone says otherwise they are lying, or maybe worse – maybe they are the enemy too.

It is easy to ridicule confirmation bias from a position of safety, security, and relative neutrality. It is easy, watching the same US television coverage of the Israeli/American war on Lebanon which Bin Laden probably watched, to empathize with his conclusions (see the quote at the end of my previous post). But, there are problems with this too – all we are doing is following out the old liberal line that says an enemy is just a misunderstood friend. Zizek is very good to point out the fallacy in this – what about Hitler? Was Hitler only my misunderstood friend? Of course not. In situations where one can’t help but take sides, one cannot help but feel some revulsion at the suggestion that I have mischaracterized the motivations of an enemy.

I mean – seriously, say someone discovered a Nazi text which claimed that the true motivation for the scapegoating of Jews in the 1930s in Germany was to destroy the power of the banks? There is something revolting about this, it makes me feel a little sick even to write out this as a hypothetical. No! We want to say – Hitler scapegoated Jews because he hated them! It was hatred of jewish people that motivated all of it! And we likely think that anyone who says otherwise is an anti-semite, an apologist.

This same feeling that we share (I hope), this feeling of disgust at questioning the Nazi’s motivations, maybe this is the feeling of those who booed as Ron Paul talked about the explicit motivations of Al Qaeda – maybe they feel that Al Qaeda hates American freedom just as Nazis hated the jews. The pure hatred in the pure enemy. But my relation towards that enemy is also pure hatred. So, it works out to (my) pure hatred of (the) pure hatred (of my enemy).

But there must be some kind of mistake. This leaves us in an epistemic trap – if my enemy is really a pure enemy, then I couldn’t possibly know it because I am forced to believe (and therefore disregard evidence to the contrary) that he is my enemy.

I think the paradox created by radical evil can be solved by allowing for a distinction between empathy and sympathy. In empathy I feel the emotions which I think someone else is feeling (ok, in reality it is more complicated than this but the details don’t matter here). In sympathy I not only feel the emotions, but sympathize with the goals they imply, and desire to help with these goals.

The difference between empathy and sympathy is a moral judgement, whether it is explicit or not. In many cases, I can not decide whether or not to empathize with someone else’s situation – but I do have to decide whether I will allow those feelings to provoke me to take on their goals, to allow their goal structure to have an effect on my own. As a moral agent, I’m responsible for my goal structure, for its carrying out, and for alterations to it. I’m not sure if being a moral agent can mean anything outside of that.

While it might feel revolting to empathize with the situation of an enemy, this might just be because we are not used to making a conceptual distinction between sympathy and empathy, and we are not used to seeing this distinction in others. It might be that this distinction is only clean conceptually, and phenomenologically there is always a tension between empathy and sympathy (or we might say between empathic simulation and empathic concern).

I want this discussion to allow me to say something meaningful about the “love thine enemies” teaching. Love thine enemies can’t mean simply sympathize with them, take on their goal structure, because then (unless they were not truly your enemies, which is certainly the case some of the time) your own destruction would become your own goal.

On the other hand, love thine enemies can’t mean simply empathize with them – because it is possible to empathize without taking their interests into account at all – to empathize purely to improve your own strategy at destroying the enemy.

No – the demand to love thine enemies is neither a military tactic, nor a pure expansion of the zone of moral concern to include all (it is not a call for universal humanity in the French Revolutionary sense). Rather, it exists in some kind of tension between these too interpretations.

I think the key is to go back to confirmation bias, and the blindness it creates. This blindness is not only theoretical – it’s not only that I become an idiot when I see someone purely as an enemy. Although this is certainly true, for instance in the ultimate attribution error I construct an idea of their personality as self-consciously evil – but no one actually constructs their own personality this way. It is also a moral blindness – I am blind to the possibility of recognizing what is genuinely positive in their personality, and I am blind to the possibility of recognizing what is genuinely negative in my own personality. And, if we think that we should see good and evil for what they are, then we might think that my blindness of good and evil as is created by the enemy-relation is a moral problem.

I think most of what is useful about Christianity can be boiled down to the phrase, “don’t be an idiot”. The english term “idiot” comes from the Greek idios which means “privately”, “apart”, or “one’s own”. In other words – don’t be on your own, inside, by yourself – be out there with others. And it’s not just a theoretical maxim – how you are with others has an impact on how we all live together, and that’s ethics, and you’re responsible for that, and that’s why it’s a moral issue. Actually, I think that the trinity is an expression of the Maxim “don’t be an idiot” – God realizes that he can’t actually understand or care for his people because his omnipotence puts him totally apart. The one thing you can’t understand if you are powerful is what it’s like to be weak. So, God knocks up Mary, makes himself mortal. And in the same move, changes his religion from being about “being a chosen people”, to a religion for anybody – and a religion which demands of everybody to see across in/out group lines. Which is again, a way of not being “private”, “apart”, an idiot.









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