Social psychologists are intimately familiar with the ways in which human beings make sense of their social environment, including the explanations we offer about our own behavior and that of others. While we would like to think that our judgments are based in objectivity and “common sense,” the truth is they are reliably and fundamentally biased.

Decades of psychological research informs us that human beings are more likely to attribute the bad acts of others to personality or disposition rather than to situational factors. For example, if someone cuts us off in traffic, we are more likely to respond with “What a jerk!”, blaming the person’s behavior on internal factors, such as character, rather than to consider the influence of external or situational factors, like he was rushing his sick child to the hospital. Factors that will remain unknown or unknowable to us at the time. Curiously, if we are the ones driving recklessly, research says that we will almost always blame our bad behavior on the circumstances (e.g., “I couldn’t help it, there wasn’t enough room”).

And these flawed attributions are even more pronounced when we view the person committing the bad act as unlike ourselves.

Recently, we have seen this attribution error at work in our community. A friend of mine is at the center of controversy as a result of comments he made while presenting in a public forum. There appears to be little debate as to the veracity of the accounts from those in attendance…so, yep, he said it, and yep, many found it offensive. By his own admonition, a “foul analogy” was made.

Our very nature compels us to make sense of unexpected departures from the norms and mores we strive to follow as a community of people. Social scientists across the globe say that in cases like this, we are likely to (erroneously) attribute the bad act to the person’s character. So it comes as no surprise that my friend has been on the “hot seat” defending himself against allegations that he (not his behavior) is vile, unredeemable, and a threat to our children. All despite examples to the contrary from interactions with him as colleagues, friends and neighbors.

Perhaps we might instead take the position of while the behavior was objectionable, the man is not. Because when we hold a good man accountable for his actions, we are affirming that learning and personal growth can and will occur.

 Jennifer Scott is a Rutland resident.

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