The “Fundamental Attribution Error” and Suicide Terrorism

Review of: Lankford, A. (2013) The myth of martyrdom: What really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters, and other self-destructive killers. Palgrave Macmillan.
In Press, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (published version may differ slightly)

In 1977, the social psychologist Lee Ross coined the term “fundamental attribution error” to describe the putative tendency of people to overestimate the importance of dispositional causes of behavior, such as personality traits and political attitudes, and underestimate the importance of situational causes, such as social pressure or objective circumstances.  Over the decades since, the term has firmly rooted itself into the conventional wisdom of social psychology, to the point where it is sometimes identified as the field’s basic insight (Ross & Nisbett 2011). However, the actual research evidence purporting to demonstrate this error is surprisingly weak (see, e.g., Funder 1982; Funder & Fast 2010; Krueger & Funder 2004), and at least one well-documented error (the “false consensus bias” (Ross 1977a) implies that people overestimate the degree to which their behavior is determined by the situation.

Moreover, everyday counter-examples are not difficult to formulate. Consider the last time you tried, in an argument, to change someone’s attitude. Was it easier, or harder than you expected?  Therapeutic interventions and major social programs intended to correct dispositional problems, such as tendencies towards violence or alcoholism also are generally less successful than anticipated. Work supervisors and even parents, who have a great deal of control over the situations experienced by their employees or children, similarly find it surprisingly difficult to control behaviors as simple as showing up on time or making one’s bed. My point is not that people never change their minds, that interventions never work, or that employers and parents have no control over employees or children; it is simply that situational influences on behavior are often weaker than expected.

Even so, it would be going too far to claim that the actual “fundamental” error is the reverse, that people overestimate the importance of situational factors and underestimate the importance of dispositions.  A more judicious conclusion would be that sometimes people overestimate the importance of dispositional factors, and sometimes they overestimate the importance of situational factors, and the important thing, in a particular case, is to try to get it right. The book under review, The Myth of Martyrdom (Lankford 2013), aims to present an extended example of an important context in which many authoritative figures get it wrong, by making the reverse of the fundamental attribution error (though the book never uses this term): When trying to find the causes of suicide terrorism, too many experts ascribe causality to the political context in which terrorism occurs, or the practical aims that terrorists hope to achieve. Instead, the author argues, most, if not all, suicide terrorists are mentally disturbed, vulnerable, and angry individuals who are not so different from run-of-the-mill suicides, and who are in fact highly similar to “non-terrorist” suicidal killers such as the Columbine or Sandy Hook murderers. Personality and individual differences are important; suicide terrorists are not ordinary people driven by situational forces.

Lankford convincingly argues that misunderstanding suicide terrorists as individuals who are rationally responding to oppression or who are motivated by political or religious goals is dangerous, because it plays into the propaganda aims of terrorist organizations to portray such individuals as brave martyrs rather than weak, vulnerable and exploitable pawns. By spreading the word that suicide terrorists are mentally troubled individuals who wish to kill themselves as much or more than they desire to advance any particular cause, Lankford hopes to lessen the attractiveness of the martyr role to would-be recruits, and also remove any second-hand glory that might otherwise accrue to a terrorist group that manages to recruit suicide-prone operatives to its banner.

Lankford’s overall message is important.  However, the book is less than an ideal vehicle for it. The evidence cited consists mostly of a hodge-podge of case studies which show that some suicide terrorists, such as the lead 9/11 hijacker, had mental health issues and suicidal tendencies that long preceded their infamous acts. The book speaks repeatedly of the “unconscious” motives of such individuals, without developing a serious psychological analysis of what unconscious motivation really means or how it can be detected. It rests much of its argument on quotes from writers that Lankford happens to agree with, rather than independent analysis. It never mentions the “fundamental attribution error,” a prominent theme within social psychology that is the book’s major implicit counterpoint, whether Lankford knows this or not. The obvious parallels between suicide terrorists and genuine heroes who are willing to die for a cause is noted, but a whole chapter (Ch. 5) attempting to explain how they are different fails to make a distinction that was clear to this reader. In the end, the book is not a work of serious scholarship. It is written at the level of a popular, “trade” book, in prose that is sometimes distractingly overdramatic and even breathless. Speaking as someone who agrees with Lankford’s basic thesis, I wish it had received the serious analysis and documentation it deserves, as well as being tied to other highly relevant themes in social psychology.  Perhaps another book, more serious but less engaging to the general reader, lies in the future. I hope so.

For, the ideas in this book are important.  One attraction of the concept of the “fundamental attribution error,” and the emphasis on situational causation in general, is that it is seen by some as removing limits on human freedom, implying that anybody can accomplish anything regardless of one’s abilities or stable attributes. While these are indeed attractive ideas, they are values and not scientific principles. Moreover, an overemphasis on situational causation removes personal responsibility, one example being the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust who claimed they were “only following orders.” A renewed attention on the personal factors that affect behavior not only may help to identify people at risk of committing atrocities, but also restore the notion that, situational factors notwithstanding, a person is in the end responsible for what he or she does.

Funder, D. C. (1982) On the accuracy of dispositional vs. situational attributions. Social Cognition 1:205–22.
Funder, D. C. & Fast, L. A. (2010) Personality in social psychology. In: Handbook of social psychology, 5th edition, ed. D. Gilbert & S. Fiske, pp. 668–97. Wiley.
Krueger, J. I. & Funder, D. C. (2004) Towards a balanced social psychology: Causes, consequences and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27:313–27.
Lankford, A. (2013) The myth of martyrdom: What really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters, and other self-destructive killers. Palgrave Macmillan.
Ross, L (1977a) The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 13(3):279–301.
Ross, L. (1977b) The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In: Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 10, ed. L. Berkowitz, pp. 173–220. Academic Press.
Ross, L. & Nisbett, R. E. (2011) The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology, 2nd edition. Pinter and Martin.

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