I’ll be sitting on a jury tomorrow for the first time. The logistics are annoying. I have to take an indefinite time off work, wait in long security lines at the courthouse, and deal with a constant stream of bureaucratic nonsense. But all that is dwarfed by excitement. And, OK, yes, some pride. My judgments will affect several lives in an immediate and concrete way. There’s a heaviness to that, a responsibility, that can’t be brushed aside.
My focus on jury duty may be why a new study on social judgments caught my eye. Whether part of a jury or not, we judge other people’s behaviors every day. If you’re walking down a city sidewalk and someone slams into you, you’re probably going to make a judgment about that behavior. If you’re driving down the highway and get stuck behind a slow car, you’re probably going to make a judgment about that driver’s behavior. If somebody leaves a meandering and inappropriate comment on your blog…
Since the 1960s psychology researchers have known that people tend to make social judgments with a consistent bias: We’re more likely to attribute someone’s behavior to inherent personality traits than to the particulars of the situation. The guy who bumps into me on the sidewalk did so because he’s a dumb jerk, not because he’s rushing to the hospital to see his sick child. The driver is slow because she’s a feeble old lady, not because her engine is stalling.
Those are flippant examples, but this bias, known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ or FAE, can be pernicious. Consider a policeman who’s making a split-second decision about whether to shoot a suspect wearing a hoodie. Because of the FAE, he “might make a shoot decision based on stereotypical characteristics about that person, and fail to take into account the context,” says Jennifer Kubota, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. But the suspect “could be wearing a hoodie just because it’s cold outside.”
We can overcome this bias, but it takes time and deliberate thought. Studies have shown that when people are distracted or under strong time pressure, they’re more likely to make the FAE.
In the new study, now in press in Biological Psychology, Kubota and her colleagues found another factor that pushes people toward the FAE: stress.
To create physiological stress, the researchers asked volunteers to plunge their forearms into ice water for three minutes. This so-called ‘cold-pressor task’ is known to spike levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
After the stress exposure, volunteers read statements about a fictional character and saw a picture of the person’s face. They would get one sentence of behavioral information (“Jenny read a book in an hour”) and another sentence of situational information (“The book was a children’s book”). Then they gave two ratings: 1) the degree to which the behavior was caused by dispositional factors as opposed to situational ones, 2) how much they liked the fictional person.
As it turns out, compared with non-stressed participants, those who were exposed to stress (and showed increases in cortisol) were more likely to make dispositional attributions than situational ones. They also gave more negative evaluations of the fictional characters.
“When we’re under stress we’re more likely to think that someone behaved the way they did because of something about their personality,” Kubota says. “And we’re ignoring all of these important situational and environmental factors that actually could have had a pretty big impact on why they did what they did.”
The differences between stressed and unstressed groups were small, but nevertheless notable, says Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology at Yale who was not involved in the work. The cold-water stress, after all, is quite subtle compared with common real-world stressors such as sleep deprivation, divorce or financial woes.
The findings also “fit perfectly with what we already know” about stress and the brain, Arnsten says, a topic she has been studying for 30 years. In times of acute stress, our rational brain circuits (centered in the prefrontal cortex) rapidly shut down and our more primitive ones (based in the amygdala and basal ganglia) take over. “The automatic, unconscious circuits in your brain become in charge of decisions,” she says.
The same thing happens, it seems, when we’re making a social judgment. Last year a brain-imaging study reported that when people make judgments based on situational factors, they show more activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) than when they make judgments based on personality traits. Because stress is particularly damaging to circuits in the DLPFC, it makes sense that stress would make situational judgments more difficult and exacerbate the FAE.
“This has a lot of relevance to what’s going on right now with the police in places like Ferguson,” Arnsten says. “If the police are stressed, they’re going to be more likely to attribute bad things to people.” It may also come into play in conflict zones such as the Middle East and the Ukraine, she adds. “People become primitive [and] seek revenge” against those they perceive as inherently “bad.” This bias makes them “unable to see the bigger situation and represent long-term solutions that would actually be more helpful.”
In a second experiment, Kubota’s team tried to replicate their findings using more realistic scenarios. The researchers shared 30, one-sentence stories about crime with 204 American volunteers recruited online with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The vignettes varied in the number of situational details. For example, the sentence “A woman stabs another woman to death after an argument” has less situational information than “A 13-year-old boy in the slums of Chicago robs an 87-year-old man of $2.27.”
For each sentence, volunteers rated how much they thought the behavior was caused by dispositional factors as opposed to situational ones, as well as whether they believed the behavior was criminal, how much they liked the offender, and how severe the offender’s punishment should be.
Consistent with the first experiment, this one found that the higher the level of (self-reported) current stress, the more likely the person was to attribute a criminal behavior to the offender’s disposition.
After talking through these findings, I told Kubota about my upcoming jury service and asked her what I could do, if anything, to combat the FAE. She gave two pieces of advice. “First, for jurors, there are a number of important ways to decrease your stress level,” she said, such as doing relaxation exercises or mindfulness training.
Second, regardless of stress level, the best way to combat the FAE “is to give yourself a bit more time,” she said. Take the time to think of the person you’re judging and the complexity of their unique situation. “Put yourself in their shoes.” I’ll do my best.