Thursday, April 5, 2012

On Assumptions and Attribution, or, In Defense of Wild-Eyed Idealism

"Wild-eyed idealism is noble, wonderful, and impractical. Because we ourselves do good, and because we so ardently want everyone to be good, we think that simple social legislation will enable them to be so. But people don’t do good. People are selfish, and if we don’t make them work, they won’t."
I recently received the following as part of a longer letter from a family member. I've heard this argument from several sources lately, and it seems prevalent among the politically conservative demographic. I'm studying social psychology this term though, and it seems that there is a scientific explanation for this perspective, as well as for my own.
So this was my reply.

Enter social psychology, and the note that the majority of people assume internal attribution for behavior. In other words, the natural human inclination (apparently) is to assume that a person is what he is and does what he does because of who he is (without regard to circumstances). They guy in line ahead of you is slow and bumbling because he's stupid, or lazy, or careless; not because he narrowly avoided an accident getting here, or because he just found out that his wife has cancer.

There are some people (apparently I am one, as I discovered in a class exercise), who tend to be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and allow for the possibility--even probability--of an external attribution.
The book discussed social politics, in particular the example of welfare, and noted that the typical conservative line is that poor people got there because they were lazy or uncaring (internal attribute), and that they would prefer to just mooch off the system indefinitely. The typical liberal perspective is that people are poor because of lack of education, layoffs, lack of access to training or employment, and other such external attributes. The opinion on that side is that, given a little help, and some opportunities, they will use the system for a time, but ultimately that they want to be independent and support themselves.

So they've collected some statistics. It seems that the average person on government assistance is there for about a year. Then they are gainfully employed and support themselves. I found it interesting that the statistics seem to point much more one direction than the other...

Now I realize that in many cases the real truth is probably somewhere in the middle--that most situations arise out of a combination of internal and external reasons. It's interesting how we displace though. Several members of our family have been unemployed or underemployed within the last few years, and (knowing the specifics), we have all given each other the benefit of the doubt. We have assumed that each was doing the best he could to be employed, and we have prayed for each others' success. I did not hear any judgments about getting WIC, unemployment benefits, medicaid, or food stamps (although I know several of us have done that). Why then do we assume that the people that we don't know are any different from the ones we do know?

Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you (Matt 7:2). Christ taught that, Elder Uchdorf just quoted him a few days ago, with the simple sermon, "Stop It!" Obviously, feel free to vote as you believe is best. But in the meantime, watch your words, and your deeds, and even your thoughts (Mosiah 4:30), because a judgment within your heart is still a judgment.
I dare say this injunction against judgment applies not just to the behavior of individuals, but also to their politics. I feel strongly about my idealistic stances, and I don't think they are impractical. They may be improbable for right now, but wasn't Jesus himself the original wild-eyed liberal idealist? Is improbability (or even impracticability) a reason to give up on those ideals? Jesus didn't. And I may be the most tenacious person I know.

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