Attribution Bias

Our brains are pretty impressive pattern recognition machines. We take in a lot of information about the world around us, remember stories, pull information together to form new thoughts and insights, move through the world based on the information we take in, and we are able to predict the results of actions before they have occurred. Our brain evolved to help us navigate a complex, dangerous, and uncertain world.


Today however, while our world is arguably more complex and uncertain than ever, it might not be as dangerous on a general day to day basis. I’m pretty sure I won’t encounter any animals who may try to eat me when I sit at the park to read during my lunch break, I won’t need to distinguish between two types of berries to make sure I don’t eat the poison kind, and if the thunder storms scheduled for this evening drop golf ball sized hail, I won’t have to worry to much about where I will find safety and shelter. Nevertheless, my evolved brain is still going to approach the world as if it were the dangerous place it was when my ancestors were evolving their thought capacities, and that will throw some monkey-wrenches into my life and lead to me to see patterns that don’t really exist.


Colin Wright has a great quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “You ascribe meaning to that person’s actions through the lens of what’s called “attribution bias.” If you’re annoyed by their slow driving, that inferred meaning will probably not be generous to the other driver: they’re a bad person, they’re in the way, and they’re doing this because they’re stupid or incapable. That these assumptions about the situation are possibly incorrect – maybe they’re driving slowly because thy’re in deep thought about elephant tool usage – is irrelevant. Ascribing meaning to acts unto itself is impressive, even if we often fail to arrive at a correct, or fully correct understanding of the situation.”


We often find ourselves in situations that are random and try to ascribe a greater meaning to the situation or event we are in. At least in the United States, it is incredibly common to hear people say that everything happens for a reason, creating a story for themselves in which this moment of inconvenience is part of a larger story filled with lessons, staircases, detours, success, and failure that are all supposed to culminate in a larger narrative that will one day all make sense. The fact that this way of thinking is so prevalent suggests to me that the power of our pattern recognition focused brains is still in full swing even though we no longer need it to be as active in as many situations of our life. We don’t need every moment of our life to happen for a reason, and if we allow for randomness and eliminate the running narrative of our life, we don’t have to work through challenging apologetics to understand something negative.


Attribution bias as described by Wright shows us how wrong our brain can be about the world. It shows us that our brains have certain tendencies that elevate ourselves in thought over the rest of the world that doesn’t conform to our desires, interests, wishes, and preferences. It reveals that we are using parts of our brains that evolved to help our ancestors in ways that we now understand to be irrational. If we can see that the slow person driving in front of us with a political sticker that makes our blood boil is not all the terrible things we instantly think they are (that instead they are a 75 year-old grandfather driving in a new town trying to get to the hospital where his child is sick) then we can recognize that not everything in life has a meaning, or at least not the meaning that our narrow pattern recognizing brain wants to ascribe. Remembering this mental bias and making an effort to recognize this type of thinking and move in a more generous thought direction will help us move through the world with less friction, anger, and disappointment because we won’t develop false patterns that let us down when they fail to materialize in the outcomes we expected.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.


Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”


Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.


We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.

What Racial Indifference and Blindness Create

It has become common and popular today to say that you don’t see race and that your actions and behaviors are colorblind. Our politicians, celebrities, friends, and neighbors will all say they are colorblind, trying to convey the idea that they do not act like a racist and that they love all people, regardless of race or skin color.


In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that colorblindness and our focus on outward racism is actually what has allowed racial attitudes and racially disparate outcomes to survive in the United States. The type of racism we have to be aware of is not an outward racism perpetuated by individuals, but rather an invisible racism built into our structures, ideologies, and communities. We claim to be colorblind and we tell ourselves and others that we are fair to all races because we have diverse friends, but at the same time we often support policies that impact the lives of black and brown people unequally relative to white people. The New Jim Crow demonstrates the ways in which our colorblind society has not done a good job of preventing racism from influencing our criminal justice system and goes further to show that racism is a consistent factor in the policies and politics that we support.


What colorblindness creates is racial indifference. It creates an atmosphere where we assume that if we are not explicitly mean and don’t act in deliberately malicious ways towards others, then those others will be fine and will succeed. Colorblindness does not really mean that we are not racist, but that the concerns, values, and lives of people of color do not matter to us. We cannot see the suffering, the disparate impacts, and the inequalities of society because we are indifferent to the lives of minorities. This is what we are truly saying by calling ourselves colorblind, even if we don’t recognize it.


In The New Jim Crow, Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” Humans evolved in relatively small groups, working, hunting, and growing together, but our world today demands that we work as a single global people. Our minds did not evolve to truly understand and connect with billions or even just millions of people across the globe, and along the way we have developed stories to tell us who we associate with. These made up stories of race, nation, and sports give us a sense of community and help us understand who is part of our tribe. The problem, however, is that these stories are fictions and operating based on our tribal instincts hurts the lives of real people. When we cannot move beyond our tribal nature, we create inequities that create social tension and conflict. In the United States we have chosen to ignore our tribal attitudes and have chosen to believe that indifference to other groups is the same thing as supportive inclusion. Unfortunately, this allows racial biases to operate in the background as we favor our tribe over others and push others down in invisible ways. As Alexander writes in the book, “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”

Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.


I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.


Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.

The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Do Racial Minorities Commit More Crime?

An argument you may hear about why arrest rates are so high for black and latino people in the United States is that those two groups commit crimes (particularly drug crimes) at higher levels than white people. The evidence for this is the number of black and latino people incarcerated relative to white people. If white people committed more crimes relative to black and latino people, we would have a prison population that was more representative of the non-prison population. This logic however, is incorrect.

Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow looks at this argument directly as she examines our criminal justice system and evaluates whether we police and arrest fairly or in a way that disproportionately affects black people and other minority groups. Alexander cites evidence throughout her book to suggest that our policing habits and incarceration practices are influenced by racial attitudes and implicit bias. When you view the system through this lens, you see that the argument above becomes an excuse for racial disparities in policing and an excuse for the poor economic and social outcomes for our minority populations.  In response to such faulty thinking, Alexander writes, “The former New Jersey attorney general dubbed this phenomenon the ‘circular illogic of racial profiling.’ Law enforcement officials, he explained, often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted.”

Further, citing research in racial profiling, Alexander writes, “Whites were actually more likely than people of color to be carrying illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In fact, in New Jersey, whites were almost twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband as African Americans, and five times as likely to be found with contraband as latinos.”

The New Jim Crow makes it clear that our prisons are over populated with black and latino individuals relative to the crime they commit (particularly drug crimes) and that this over representation is the result of years of racial bias in our country. The way we think about crime in low income neighborhoods, the way we think about drug offenses, and the way we review and evaluate criminal activity puts racial minorities at a disadvantage, and the arrest rates for black and brown people are evidence of our racial biases in policing rather than a justification for our policing and incarceration patterns.

The Responsibility of Those Affected

About a one or two years ago I remember hearing an interesting fact. There are more white people living in poverty in the United States than there are black people. But when you ask someone to picture a person living in poverty, most people vision a black person struggling to get by. In her book The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander gives us some background of how racial attitudes developed in our country, particularly in how race was used as a political tool to shape ideas and thoughts regarding low income black people. She explains the ways in which black people were framed as dangerous, flawed, and undeserving and how these descriptions were used politically to establish political attitudes based on race within the United States. Overtime, these attitudes have persisted, and have been intentionally used to split low socioeconomic status white people in our country from black people and minority populations.

Alexander writes, “by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. As the Edsalls explain, ‘the pitting of whites and blacks at the low end of the income distribution against each other intensified the view among many whites that the condition of life for the disadvantaged—particularly for disadvantaged blacks—is the responsibility of those affected, and not the responsibility of the larger society.’”

The quote from Alexander shows us that race, racial attitudes, and the systems of support we develop in our country are flexible and open to manipulation. There is no reality behind race, but racial ideas have been used for political purposes throughout our countries history. Alexander argues (and her argument has been supported by other researchers) that bottom-up movements that placed lower classes against upper classes in the United States have been countered and broken up with the use of racial prejudices and attitudes. In the 1970’s President Nixon pushed the idea that black people were dangerous, and that the state needed to crack down on black crime. From these ideas and from this desire to break up a coalition of low socioeconomic status black and white people came racial exploitation and discrimination, leading to the start of a mass incarceration system in the United States.

What I have found particularly interesting in our country is the belief that people hold about becoming rich. We like to believe that we will all somehow reach the top socioeconomic status groups, and we tend to believe that hard work and smart decisions are all that are needed to reach those upper echelons.  While it is certainly true that hard work and smart decision making is necessary to be materially and financially successful, we should not over inflate the importance of those factors and decrease the importance of luck, familial income level at birth, and of social attitudes and thoughts about you and people who share your identities.  We must recognize that financial and material success are not solely the responsibility of the individual, and by the same logic failure and poverty are not inherently the responsibility of the individual poor. How we structure society, how we allow or bar individuals from participating in the economy, and how we treat certain groups and individuals matters in terms of who succeeds and who does not. Aspiring to become successful does not mean that we should treat the highest socioeconomic status groups differently, simply because we believe we will somehow be there and will somehow benefit from policies that clearly disadvantage us and the rest of society.