When I look at responses to current events on social media platforms and why certain headlines cause people to react in certain ways, it makes me curious how people are perceiving their own and other’s reactions. I am interested as to the potential reasons or motivations in the reactions that aim at making fun of or minimizing certain situations.
A principle in Psychology may potentially have an answer for these behaviors (reactions). That principle is known as the Fundamental attribution error (FAE). FAE can be defined as our tendency to attribute a person’s behavior in any given situation(s) due to their personality and not to the context or the environmental factors that may have attributed to their behaviors in question. Interestingly, studies have shown that when we find ourselves in similar situations and behaving in the same ways (that we criticize others for) we tend to say it is the situation that can explain our behavior and not our personality, so it is a built-in mechanism to justify our own behavior(s) as a response to a situation. Basically, this is the fundamental attribution error: when it is other people they are the jerks, but when it is us behaving in the same way we are not jerks, we are just responding to the situation(or at least that is the tendency of interpreting justifying our behavior). We have all seen the memes created online poking fun of or mockingly trivializing other people’s experiences and maybe FAE holds the key to explaining why we can be so critical of other people and at times fail to see our own faults.
So why is this important? It is important because of the impact that the internet and social media outlets have on our lives, namely in shaping our perceptions and ultimately reality (which social media is not in the least). This calls for the discussion of the relevance of FAE and in being aware of its effects on us and our relationships. We can begin to understand FAE at work when we see cruel reactions to the headlines of people who are undergoing unfortunate events in their lives and have gotten caught up in their life situations. The mob group mentality can take over and the court of public opinion usually takes hold of the situation usually in a negative way, especially if the person in question is in the public spotlight. FAE can drive feelings of ill will towards people whose behaviors are in question and judgments from other’s who do not even know the person or the specifics of events, leading to public versions of what I call modern day inquisitions (MDI’s).
This is where we can see behaviors leaning towards the comments we see, actually moving us away from empathy towards others. This is also relevant to be aware of because we understand that a person’s perceptions, once enacted tend to look for confirming evidence on what they believe. This confirming feedback loop or thought process once in motion becomes difficult to change, hence why people usually stick to a position they have concluded to be true on any given topic.
Historically, we can draw parallel accounts of FAE through different time periods as I have alluded to. And if anything, we can learn that many innocent people paid the price with their lives due to effects perpetuated by FAE. If you want a ready example watch the movie “The Crucible” directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring: Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis.
It can be argued that FAE is one of the oldest forms of creating the illusion of distance from the “ugly parts” or primitive aspects of ourselves that reside in all of us and the potential in all of us to actualize those parts. It is as if making fun of another person’s “faults” separates the person doing so from a commonly shared humanity.
The Psychologist Carl Jung called that disowned primitive side in all of us the Shadow self. Jung described the shadow as that unconscious side of personality or parts that can be categorized as: dark, shameful, ugly and unattractive to others. FAE points to the fact that the person(s) posting the meme(s) making fun or poking at the situation are more than likely unconsciously enacting FAE, and yet anyone judging them for posting the meme is also enacting FAE, so there’s a loop to be aware of here. Anyone of us can and do get caught up in FAE more often than we would like to admit all thanks to language and thinking (cognition). None of us is immune from cognition and the pitfalls of language (thank you brain).
There is also a philosophical argument at hand. The argument over free will over determinism. People who judge others for making mistakes are essentially saying that they (the accused) are freely choosing their actions and negate any circumstantial or contextual influence on their behaviors. Usually, free will is associated with morals and living within social standards that any given society finds/deems acceptable and good. The fact that people judge is based on the belief that humans have free will to choose and that a faulty personality is the reason for poor behavior choice, which leads to the consequences suffered. True Determinism on the other hand takes into account that there are aspects outside of human control that in effect are responsible for things as they unfold and argues against the possibility of true free will. Determinists' would explain that the poor choice maker is a victim of consequences that were out of his control and the behavior chosen was actually a response to the environments call for doing so. Very different philosophies.
Mind you, this post is not intended to go into these philosophical views in depth and my brief definitions above are rudimentary and concise for the sake of keeping this short of a snooze fest, wake up................ My wish is to start a conversation and raise self-awareness that's all. My views here in are my own and I am not proposing any wrong or right opinion within this nor any other post because I know that the world is full of grey not just black and white (at least from my perspective).
That being said, when we start conversations we can become aware of how our own biases may influence our behaviors and potentially raise our own consciousness when we are feeling judgmental of other people. Hopefully we can learn to check in with ourselves over what our judgements may be about and inspect them closer.
I invite you to feel free to judge this post, all I ask is you be aware of any judgement that comes up while doing so.