Fundamental Attribution Error

13 Oct 2023

Nearly all of the world’s eyes were on Israel this week, with very few eyes left over for the rest. What has happened has become increasingly apparent. Why it happened seems obvious—Hamas’s own founding documents are horribly murderous—but let us be careful that how we think about the Israeli government and Hamas does not become how we think about Israelis and Palestinians.

In Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Richards J. Heuer, Jr.) (p.134), the author considers the Fundamental Attribution Error humans often fall prey to. When we consider someone else’s behavior, we overemphasize their personality and character and underemphasize the situation they find themselves in—and then we reverse that for ourselves. When someone else does something, we’re quick to label it as a result of their character without considering the external conditions influencing their actions. When we do something, we point out how the situation was the big factor (“if it hadn’t been for…”).

Heuer says this is partly because when I think about why I did something, I know myself (fairly well) and can see both the personal and situational influences on my actions. But when I look at someone else, I don’t see all of the situational things they see nearly as well as they do. And so I tend to attribute their actions to their internal character.

I act as I do because of my situation; they act as they do because of who they are.

This line of thinking is obviously dangerous. We think either too well or too poorly of another person’s character, while thinking too little about our own. But more to the current point, thinking this way makes it difficult to predict people’s actions in future situations. We think people of a certain character and belief will always act in a certain way; but as we know ourselves, situations and social pressure can cause us to act differently.

Every actor within the Israeli-Hamas conflict—from the governments and militants down to the individual people on the street—are acting due to some mix of internal and external forces. We, outside distant observers, almost certainly get the mix wrong. I am not saying this as a sort of subtle excuse or justification for evil actions. I am only saying that trying to predict what people will do in the future—what the Israelis will do, what Hamas will do, what the Palestinian people will do—is very difficult to judge. We should not say “well, surely” because the basis we have for what comes next is almost certainly wrong.

How do we get the mix right? We may never be 100% correct, but we could be, perhaps, “more right” or “less wrong.” To broaden our understand, we can read chronologies, histories, analyses, and interviews. These are all biased in their own way, as well, but if we know about the biases we can keep those in mind—sort of. By reading many different perspectives, one person’s bias can sort of cancel out someone else’s. (To be clear, I’m not talking about reading disinformation or propaganda–I stay as far away from that as possible. Also, we must avoid the trap of “bothsidesism” that Russell Moore wrote about. What we want is to try and understand the mix of attitudes and situations that help shape people’s actions.)

Some readings will be hard. This piece in the Economist’s magazine and this in CSM give us a flavor of the despair and desperation Palestinians feel on the ground in the Gaza Strip. We recoil over how they ‘celebrated in the streets of Ramallah.’ But then we read about “200 Palestinians who have died this year at the hands of Israeli soldiers or settlers… the terrorist outrage is widely seen as a breach in the Israeli-built wall that has trapped residents for 16 years and condemned them to victimhood. The situation is very devastating, and we couldn’t take it any more.”

Without excusing Hamas, we might begin to think a bit about the desperate circumstances and beliefs the “typical man on the street” must be feeling. How are they going to react in the future? What will they think about Hamas’s massacres of civilians? How will they react to the ground invasion? How will they interact with Gospel workers?

Most of us who read this have zero impact on the forces involved, but some of us will have interaction with the people on the ground—even with current or former militants. We are called to reach out to all people. We often think one group or another is unresponsive—but are they unresponsive, or do we assume they are unresponsive? Do we look at how they acted in one situation, and apply that assumption to a Gospel setting, attributing it to character? Listening to them and understanding them is important. Let us try to do so without making assumptions. I am reminded that a great many Pauls in the Muslim world today, were once Sauls.

What would I speculate about the next steps in the conflict? I think it’s no great estimate to think a ground invasion is nigh inevitable. The Israelis face a situation where Hamas has become a threat they must do something about and must be seen to be doing something about. The unequal distribution of forces, resources, and skill sets make me think things will go badly for Hamas—but also, possibly, for the civilians in the area, which could include believers and church workers. Over 100k Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are already displaced. I would also estimate that figure would likely rise significantly in the near future—perhaps double or triple. At the same time, Hamas has survived a long time, and I suspect they won’t be completely crushed now. This will sow seeds for the future. In all of this, I don’t think neighboring governments will step in on behalf of Hamas. The violent, cruel way Hamas launched its attack, especially with massacres of civilians (including children), can be—I suspect will be—disavowed by most neighboring governments. I don’t think it will derail the Saudi-Israeli peace process, although it might ‘back burner’ it for a while.

In the long run, how is the situation in Gaza addressed? If a new government installed in the Gaza Strip–here, I am armchair generalling and have absolutely no idea if this is even possible or probable–then, perhaps, there might be a more open day for Gaza. But I don’t see very many paths toward that scenario, and a lot more paths toward pain and suffering for a lot of people.

There is one possible redemptive spin. Just as Khomeini’s actions in Iran have disenchanted many Iranians with Islam, so the actions of Hamas might do likewise here. Movements may find yet more openness to the gospel in individual instances.