Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 22, 2012

Attribution error, actor-observer bias, correspondence bias, and counter-terrorism

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on March 22, 2012

Why did US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales apparently massacre sixteen Afghan villagers, including nine children?

Why did 17 year-old T.J. Lane by all accounts kill three and wound three other Chandon High School classmates he may have barely known?

Why did someone, probably Mohammed Merah, dismount  from his scooter, chase an eight-year old girl into a  school courtyard, grab her hair, and shoot her point-blank in the face?  One of four he killed that day.

Why do I — perhaps you too — bring rather different predispositions to each of these events?

One Washington state neighbor said of Sergeant Bales,  “A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Financial troubles, family troubles, brain-injury and more have been offered as possible explanations.

“We are all shocked and horrified by the actions of T.J.,” his aunt, Heather Lane, said in an email posted online Tuesday by The News-Herald in Willoughby (OH).  “We wish we could offer some answers concerning this horrific act. We have none.”

According to The Telegraph, Mohammed Merah “told police he was acting in revenge at Israel for killing Palestinian children and at France for having troops in Afghanistan.”

The more we self-identify with the perpetrator the more we are inclined to empathize —  even excuse — his actions.   If we recognize ourselves or something we value in the act or actor we are ready to consider context as a contributing factor.  We may speak softly of justice with mercy.

The more an accused murderer — or other miscreant — looks, sounds, or behaves unlike us the more we perceive purposeful evil emerging from the very otherness — racial, ethnic, religious, political, or whatever — that differentiates us from them.  We may speak gravely of avenging justice.

This differentiated  judgment depends on the proposition that I am good.

We may admit, “I make the occasional mistake.”  I have  unintentionally hurt others. I can be careless, distracted, sometimes self-absorbed.  I have been forced to make some tough choices.  But certainly none of this undoes my essential good-ness.  What I value…  the way I engage reality… my essential worldview is good and true and beautiful.

Someone with different values, understandings, or worldview is therefore bad, false, and ugly proportional to their deviation from me.

Whatever else happened with Bob, T.J. and Mohammed, this self-justifying logic had a role in the sub-strata of murderous motivation.  For an awful hour or more the “other” — man, woman, or child — became little more than a troubling antithesis to be removed to make way for more truth, more goodness, more beauty as defined by Bob, T.J., or Mohammed.

I feel this way more often than I like to admit, sometimes regarding comments to this blog.  When another’s take on an important aspect of reality (important to me) differs fundamentally from my own it is tempting to push the “trash” button conveniently placed beneath each comment.  It is especially tempting because I have a trash button and they (you) don’t.

Pulling the digital kill trigger may seem to pale in comparison to murder. But the ethical distance is not huge.  Either I recognize and honor the dignity of the other — especially the irritating, annoying, even frightening other — or I don’t.

In a highly mobile and digitally networked world we increasingly encounter otherness.  How we choose to engage the other calls for something far beyond the tourist’s easy tolerance.

Based on what little we know of Merah, it is tempting to dismiss him as heartlessly as he dispatched seven victims.  In doing so I reinforce my own differentiation, my own claim to being good.  Assuming Merah’s murders are confirmed, he deserves to be condemned.   Am I willing to hold myself equally accountable?

I am unlikely to commit murder.  But when I do not listen carefully or purposefully ignore or fail to notice — even worse, if I twist the other’s intention in a self-interested way — I propagate a virus of violation.

The proposition I am good is a deception.   Often I am not good.  Usually my understanding and actions are flawed.

I recognize myself in Bob Bales and T.J. Lane and Mohammed Merah.   We share the same narrow wire and are in relationship… whether we like it or not.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 22, 2012 @ 7:27 am

For a more academic angle, please see The Correspondence Bias by Daniel T. Gilbert and Patrick S. Malone.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 22, 2012 @ 7:35 am

Real life is often a HIGH WIRE ACT and some will always fall off IMO!

Comment by George Osbourne

March 22, 2012 @ 10:36 am

You wrote:

“When I do not listen carefully or purposefully ignore or fail to notice — even worse, if I twist the other’s intention in a self-interested way — I propagate a virus of violation.”

Sounds like political candidates may be the source of the pandemic. But we’ve all been infected.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 22, 2012 @ 10:57 am

Phil; Deep, provocative, and I believe, correct.
The proposition I am good is a deception. Often I am not good. Usually my understanding and actions are flawed…

If taken from the purely Christian Canon point of view; we are all fatally flawed, with inherent sin and required a Savior. Hence, the crucification and resurrection of Christ. And that there is no differentiation of sin…sin is sin. Whether or not you partake in this denominational point of view is not the topic of the discussion, but it does touch on good being a deception…something akin to those without sin may cast the first stone.

Changing gears; Phil Zimbardo proved, in essence that we are all capable of sadism and evil acts. His work, the Stanford prison study in which 24 normal college students were randomly assigned to be “prisoners” or “guards” in a mock prison ended after only six days due to emotional trauma being experienced by the participants. The students quickly began acting out their roles, with “guards” becoming sadistic and “prisoners” showing extreme passivity and depression. People can hurt people, regularly with little or no provocation.

The Experiment, a 2010 film directed by Paul Scheuring resembles Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment and is a remake of the 2001 German film Das Experiment. It effectively captures the metamorphism of people and roles.

Another experiment; The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Hurting people because they were told to…
I am sure there are many more. The point is we are all capable…given the particular circumstance, fatigue, fear, position of authority, and motivation, of inflicting pain. And in that infliction, able to disassociate from their actions and return to homes, spouses, children etc.

Which leads me to this disposition; if one studies the behavior of our POW’s in VietNam we clearly see that their intelligence value they provided under torture rapidly diminishes and their renderings amount to outright fabrication. It was to stop the pain. Reasonably normal behavior I would think. So flash forward to KSM and his multiple waterboarding sessions. I’m not really interested in if was 5 times or 183 or whatever. Knowing that little information is actionable and that torture doesn’t work, why did we do it? Was it to punish? Was it to see if it worked? Was it because we could? Was it simply our human condition? I don’t think it’s easily dismissed.

And the final transition for me is the dignity you speak of and the context of war. Innocent people get killed all the time. ALL THE TIME. Is it simply the consequences of violence? So if that is the case and one believes it true, than the people of 911 were simply casualties of another’s war perpetuated against us. But that’s not how we view it. Only our wars are noble and just. What about the perpetuation of war from a touch screen or joystick? Is sanitizing warfare to that degree right or good or noble? Are our lives more sacrosanct than those we take from 10000 miles or 35000’? It all becomes quite a conundrum.

We ask universally young men to engage in high degrees of violence and to be proficient at it. We ask them to kill and come home. We ask them to kill and survive for what appears to be at this point, no apparent reason. And then we ask them to come home and do not ever do it again, unless we ask them again. Many are able…some are not. Bill nails it; real life is a high wire act.

Perhaps we will learn more about this current situation, but clearly, something went terribly wrong. We should not be surprised, unless of course we are overly self righteous.

So is it reasonable to assume that our own self-interests dictate our value of life? Is the United States more noble, righteous, and honorable in our behavior and national interests than others? I agree with you Phil ; I too recognize myself in Bob Bales and T.J. Lane and Mohammed Merah. I share the same narrow wire and I don’t see it as much as like or dislike but awareness and acceptance of the fact that given a particular set of circumstances or conditions, I and many others are capable of inflicting grievous bodily harm. I am human.

Comment by P.G. Williams

March 22, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

Agree we are dealing with a “virus of violation.” Is there an inoculation agent, especially for public safety personnel? Looks like the tendency is probably an evolutionary artifact more helpful 5000 years ago than today.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 22, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

Mr. Williams, Good question and one that would take me too long to even begin to gin up an answer.

But the way you asked the question — and Dan O’Connor’s reference to Philip Zimbardo — reminded me of the “blurb” for a book I have been meaning to read.

The following is from a synopsis of Philip Zimbardo’s text: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil:

What kinds of strategies might help the reader to become inoculated against unwanted attempts to get him or her to conform, comply, obey, and yield? I outline a 10-step generic program to build resistance to mind control strategies and tactics. Chapter 16 also presents a thought experiment to involve people in engaging in progressively greater degrees of altruistic deeds that promote civic virtue.

As noted, I have not read. But certainly sounds relevant.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 22, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

Great Book!!

Comment by Anonymous

March 23, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

This “virus” is also implicated in the Trayvon Martin case, probably in the killing of the boy and certainly in the range of responses to the killer, the killing, and its implications.

Innoculation: Self-awareness, self-criticism, openness to others, refusal to be afraid. Evil is real and deserves our attention. It does not deserve our respect.

Too often we empower evil by amplifying its role and power. Evil is insidious. But unless we actively collaborate with it (or sometimes unintentionally carry it with us), evil has a very limited reach and range.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 23, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

Anon, A story that may highlight your point. Monday I was in Philadelphia. It was a glorious Spring day.

After a (very) late lunch overlooking Rittenhouse Square I ambled toward a tower peaking around a corner two blocks away. I “collect” architecture.

With a half-block still to go I could tell it was a synagogue. On Monday afternoon this immediately brought to mind the Toulouse murders of that morning.

When I turned the corner to see the building’s full expanse I stopped short and gasped. In front of the synagogue a small group of pre-teens — each of the boys wearing a kippa — and one adult male were drawing chalk art on the sidewalk. A police siren wailed to my left.

My reaction was precisely the unnecessary amplification to which you have referred. In contrast the behavior of the Jewish young people — on a beautiful afternoon at their home synagogue — was the sort of courageous and resilient choice that helps suppress evil.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 24, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

Two Saturday pieces on Mohammed Mehra suggest the range of angles available. Both of the sources are notorious for being unfriendly to linking so two extended quotes.

First, from the Wall Street Journal:

In executing his attacks, Merah did everything by the jihadist textbook. He made sure he would die a martyr’s death that would be witnessed on television screens around the world. He murdered with a video camera strapped to his body, making him star and director of his own epic. He told journalists his videos would soon be uploaded. In the attack at the Jewish school Monday morning, Merah held a little girl by her hair while he paused to reload his gun. He then shot her. In a recording found in his apartment he tells another victim, a soldier: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.” This is theater.

Second from the Financial Times:

But, if anything, the details of Merah’s life appear to support the claims of intelligence agents that he was more psychologically disturbed criminal than committed religious zealot.

“One must go back to his broken childhood and his psychiatric disorders,” Mr Squarcini (senior French security official) said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper. “For doing what he did, it is more of a medical problem and fanaticism than the simple path of a jihadist.”

Mr Squarcini was answering criticism about why agents had not tracked Merah even though he made two recent trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He insisted Merah did “not have the external attributes of a fundamentalist”.

Other testimony shows that despite journeys to the heartlands of Islamist extremism, this was a young man who rarely went near a mosque.

He was shot dead wearing a north African djellaba or long robe, with a bulletproof vest beneath, but usually preferred Lacoste shirts, Converse sports shoes and expensive-looking watches. “He was just like us,” an acquaintance said, “a handsome guy who liked to flirt with girls and have a good time.”

A classic jihadist or “just like us”? Both?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 24, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

I have received several private emails on this topic. Many have offered provocative positions and arguments. I hope you might choose — even anonymously — to participate here.

One of my correspondents makes the point that actor-observer bias can also emerge from an observer’s identity or not with victims. While I expect nearly no one would admit to this, my correspondent writes, “Somehow the seven Afghan children killed by Sergeant Bates evoke our sympathy less than the three French children killed by Merah. It’s inexcusable, nearly inexplicable, but almost certainly true.”

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