British philosopher Bertrand Russell, famously conjugated the verb “to be” this way:
I am firm.
You are obstinate.
He is a pig-headed fool.
And so we begin Part III of our ongoing series that began last January with When Cultural Difference is Used As An Excuse .
In Part II, last week, we touched on the difference between justifications — those defenses used in a “lesser of two evils” scenario, self-defense being probably the most well-known — and excuses, with “Affluenza” being the most recent.
Today, we’ll focus on “excuses” and how we come to choose them. The INSANITY defense is one we recognize. It holds that, at the time of the crime, the person did not appreciate the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts “by reason of his/her insanity.” It’s one of a number of defenses under the umbrella term, diminished capacity.
AFFLUENZA claims the same “diminished capacity.”
… an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of a culture based on financial privilege.
I wandered aimlessly for a few days, trying to make sense of it all.
Finally, I returned to the literature of Attribution Theory, which formed the basis of my master’s thesis, The Relationship Between Resources and Responsibility, thirty-four years ago.
And in the process, I got a better understanding of this “culture of affluence.” I hope you will too.
I’ll admit, this post is a bit dense, far more serious than most of my posts have been. If you find it rough going, try just reading the highlighted parts. That ought to get you through.
Are you READY?
At its core, Attribution Theory says that, try as we might not to, we judge people every day. We see behavior, and immediately make an inference. That yawn? The lip quiver, the raised eyebrow, the passionate denial? We want explanations.
[Attribution Theory, the “attribution of responsibility,” addresses our desire to praise people too. But for this series, I’ll stay with the judgments of blame.]
“You Americans ask ‘why’ all the time.”
(from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe)
It’s hard to sit with ambiguity. For some, it’s next to impossible. We do not like gaps in our reality. So, we fill those gaps in as best we can. We make assumptions, draw conclusions, anything to make sense out of mystery. It’s hard to sit with “not knowing.”
Fritz Heider, a granddaddy of Attribution Theory and a social psychologist in the 1950s and ’60s, came up with a loose dichotomy of Internal vs. External causation and his more fleshed out “Five Levels of Responsibility.”
Fritz Heider's Five Levels of Responsibility
1. Association. This is the broadest level. For some, the friends who allowed Ethan Couch to drive drunk could also be held responsible at this level. His parents too. “Guilt by association.”
2. Causality. This is the accident. The six year old DID cause the milk to be spilled. Ethan Couch DID drive the vehicle that ran over four people standing nearby; he pled guilty.
3. Justifiability. We spent some time last week on the idea of justifiable homicide, the “lesser of two evils.” No one has made the claim that this accident was in any way justifiable.
4. Foreseeability. There is a term called “reckless homicide,” otherwise known as “manslaughter.” It comes into play when the consequences of an accident could have been foreseen.
5. Intentionality. Here is where“premeditated homicide,” otherwise known as murder, resides. The gangland slaying, the mob boss hit, the serial killer, the stalker. Geeeesh, this is depressing; there are so many.
Ethan Couch was charged with four counts of “intoxication manslaughter,” which puts him squarely in the Foreseeability level. He SHOULD HAVE seen the consequences of his actions.
[A small caveat here: I do not know how the state of Texas (each jurisdiction fine tunes these terms to their discretion) weighs the intoxication part vis a vis the manslaughter part. Not my area at all. Which is fine, since we’re dealing more with the court of public opinion than the actual legal terminology.]
I keep trying to find a situation that does NOT fit into one of his five levels. For that, Fritz Heider remains one of my heroes. But his introduction of the “Internal vs. External” dichotomy of causation turned out to be even more helpful to me. Many social psychologists since have fine tuned it.
Internal vs. External Attributions: When bias clouds our judgment
When we judge another’s motives, like in the Ethan Couch case, we move past Sergeant Joe Friday’s dispassionate “Just the facts, ma’am,” and enter the realm of values, the “shoulds.”
- Ethan should have known better.
- His parents should have taught him better.
- He should have gotten what he deserved.
It’s easy for bias to shade our judgment. Consider Heider’s claim that all our judgments involve our making a choice between
- personal, “dispositional” (Internal control) and
- environmental, “situational,” (External control).
What do we control and what do others control? That is the question.
It turns out, we answer it quite differently, depending on whether we’re talking about ourself or someone else. Remember this?
I am sparkling,
You are unusually talkative.
He is drunk.
In our individualistic Western culture, we weigh the personal (internal) attributes of the actor — the traits, abilities, character, personality, disposition — over the situational (external) ones — fate, luck, coercion, culture, nature. At least when we are talking of someone else’s failures.
Whether it’s a police officer’s callous reaction that the rape victim was “asking for it,” the football coach’s analysis that a player missed a tackle because he didn’t try hard enough, or parents’ assumption that the crumpled fender on the family car is due to their son’s carelessness, we assume that people are responsible for the things that happen to them. That is our individualistic culture at work.
What I find really interesting is that we, the observers in these hypothetical scenarios, do the opposite when it’s our own failures we are judging. AND, we weigh the situational (external) attributes more heavily when talking of someone else’s successes.
I am a gourmet.
You are a gourmand.
She has both feet in the trough.
The naive social psychologist in me sees other biases at work as we look at the case of Ethan Couch. Here’s another one, called The Just World Hypothesis: people get what they deserve. Or should.
Now, that is not to say Couch doesn’t deserve our disdain (I’m as prone to wanting a just world as anyone). But it is to say that the “spoiled brat” explanations are easy. And so we stop looking for the rest of the story.
Here are two more little ditties, inspired by our current political discourse:
I have reconsidered.
You have changed your mind.
He has gone back on his word.
I am righteously indignant.
You are annoyed.
He is making a fuss about nothing.
Knowing that we, the naive observers, have these biases, let’s consider the findings from those studying the affluent end of the social class continuum in the US. The earliest article I found was published in Family Processes in 1985 (Dec 24 (4):461-72). The abstract includes these prescient sentences.
Great wealth has undoubted benefits, but it is not good for children. It distorts their functional relationship with the world, it belittles their own accomplishments, and it grotesquely amplifies their sense of what is good enough.
The 1990s brought a few more articles:
1991. Psychoanalytic understanding and treatment of the very rich. Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis.
1993. The Dark Side of the American Dream: correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Fast forward to the early 21st century. Suniya Luthar, Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College (previously on the faculty at Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Yale Child Study Center) studied adolescents in affluent communities.
Luthar found that
children growing up amidst great affluence, particularly teens, experience rising levels of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. She also found increased incidences of cheating and stealing.
Her explanation? She points to two causes:
- isolation or disconnection from parents, and the
- unrelenting pressure to achieve
Clearly, we have a problem.
As the wealthy of this country get even wealthier, we are producing a second generation of citizens unable to fulfill the basic requirement of membership in a society: the ability to participate in a social contract.
It distorts their functional relationship with the world,
Pair that with our willingness to settle for these “dispositional, personal, individualistic” explanations, and we fail to address the larger, cultural, systemic problem.
NEXT WEEK: Our last look at Culture as an Excuse: Part IV: Rape Culture
HOW ABOUT YOU? How would you describe this “larger, cultural, systemic problem?”