Are We Judging Actions, Or the People Behind Them?

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 21, 2007

Like lunar and solar eclipses, there are some Washington phenomena that are so common they ought to have distinct names. Here is one: A public figure comes to be hated by large numbers of people. But the person cannot be prosecuted or punished, perhaps because his behavior did not involve a crime so much as a profoundly different worldview. Then the public figure makes a slip on some unrelated front, and the wrath of his enemies descends on him.

Paul Wolfowitz, who announced his resignation last week as president of the World Bank, is only the latest example of the phenomenon. Much of the anger about the pay raise he engineered for his girlfriend arose because so many people hold Wolfowitz responsible -- perhaps even criminally responsible -- for the war in Iraq.

If you turn the pages of history, you will find many other examples of the phenomenon. President Bill Clinton was hounded and ultimately faced impeachment proceedings after endless "shake the tree" investigations by his critics, who eagerly seized on every scrap that fell to the ground.

This is not to say that Clinton's sex scandals, like Wolfowitz's conflict-of-interest scandal, did not involve ethical blunders. They obviously did. But it is to say that the vengeful response to these blunders is really explainable only in terms of payback.

Psychologists have long been interested in how we reach conclusions about other people, and how these conclusions inform us about the fundamental character of others. When people do something unforgivable, we often find it easy to conclude that the wrongdoing is a manifestation of their nature. This allows us to go after them with a vengeance -- when you are dealing with fundamentally bad characters, anything that can undermine them is fair game.

The analogy with the prosecution of Al Capone is useful, though not exact. Capone, a mobster who was ultimately brought down on tax-evasion charges, was a known criminal. Government officials used the tax charge as a strategy. Critics of Wolfowitz and Clinton similarly have used anything they could get their hands on to bring them down. But these efforts may have less to do with strategy than with psychology.

Wesleyan University social psychologist Scott Plous said one dimension of the phenomenon is known as the actor-observer bias. When we do something wrong ourselves -- drive 60 mph in a 40-mph zone, for example -- we explain our actions in terms of situational factors. We say we are speeding because we are running late, or that we got held up at work. But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual.

"If we are on the sidelines trying to explain Paul Wolfowitz's actions, we are likely to say it is something about him," Plous said about the World Bank scandal. "And he would be likely to say it has to do with the situation."

The different biases of actors and observers do not merely have to do with how we make and deal with excuses, Plous said. Rather, they have to do with how our perceptions inform our judgment -- when we act, our perceptions are tuned to our own situation. When others are acting, however, we are not automatically aware of all the things in their situations that could be influencing them.

Experiments have shown that our tendency to see the actions of others as dispositional -- reflecting their innate nature -- persists even when we are explicitly told otherwise. Psychologists have conducted experiments in which they asked some volunteers to take an unpopular stance while others were asked to judge the volunteers. Even when people knew the unpopular positions had been assigned to the volunteers by an experimenter, they still tended to say that the volunteers genuinely held those positions.

Partisan animosities or any other kind of group membership exacerbates and extends the problem, said Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist at Harvard University.

Where a Republican might say that another Republican who failed had a hard job to do, Democrats would be likely to conclude the person was incompetent -- we choose situational explanations to justify the errors of our allies, and we choose dispositional explanations to judge the errors of our opponents.

Our psychological perceptions get flipped when our allies and opponents do the right thing. Republicans are likely to see the success of other Republicans as dispositional -- reflecting the innate nature of Republicans. But Democrats are likely to see the success of a Republican as situational -- thus depriving their opponents of credit.

"When someone kicks a dog, you can say, 'He kicked the dog,' or you can say, 'He is aggressive,' " said Banaji. "You do more of the 'He is aggressive' for out-groups."

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