Imagine, for example, that you have been placed in a room and asked to watch a series of student speeches on the policies of Venezuelan leader Hugo ChÃ¡vez. You’ve been told in advance that the students were assigned the task of either attacking or supporting ChÃ¡vez and had no choice in the matter. Now, suppose that you are then asked to assess the political leanings of these students. Shrewd observers, of course, would factor in the context and adjust their assessments accordingly. A student who gave an enthusiastic pro-ChÃ¡vez speech was merely doing what she was told, not revealing anything about her true attitudes. In fact, many experiments suggest that people would overwhelmingly rate the pro-ChÃ¡vez speakers as more leftist. Even when alerted to context that should affect their judgment, people tend to ignore it. Instead, they attribute the behavior they see to the person’s nature, character, or persistent motives. This bias is so robust and common that social psychologists have given it a lofty title: They call it the fundamental attribution error. ~Kahneman & Renshon, Foreign Policy
This FP article is worth reading. This section reminded me of an amusing experience from a few years back when I had been asked to participate in a Religion Department symposium on “suffering and compassion.” For whatever reason, I had been assigned to work on themes of suffering and compassion in Judaism and soon came upon the kabbalistic idea of God’s suffering. As I remember it, this is the idea:
Yitzhak Luria described it as the suffering that God felt because of His separation from His Spirit, the Shekhinah, which–according to this telling of the creation of the cosmos–had been trapped here below when finite creation was broken because of its inability to hold the Infinite. With each pious and righteous act, Jews could free the Shekhinah, bring an end to God’s suffering and remake creation through the repair of the world (tikkun olun). (Hence the name of the magazine Tikkun.) In this way, he provided a cosmological reason for performing every commandment and made Jewish piety an act of compassion towards God, whose suffering was thereby alleviated.
That was the bulk of what I talked about in my presentation. The reason why I was reminded of this by the quote above was that, after I gave my talk, one of the religion professors approached and asked at one point in the conversation, “Are you Jewish?” Of course, I wasn’t (I had not yet converted to the Orthodoxy at this point, but I was well on my way in that direction) and answered the question accordingly. It was a strange question to be asked (though not quite so funny as when, years later, I said I was Orthodox and received the reply that the person in question didn’t know I was Jewish). From the way I had delivered my presentation, he apparently thought it likely that I had to be Jewish, perhaps on the assumption that only someone who firmly believed the things I said could have said them in whatever way I had said them. (I guess it was a convincing performance!) This is a natural assumption we all make whenever we see someone doing something or speaking: we take our limited information and read it back into the entire character of a person. The only trouble is that, as unavoidable as it is, this often gives us a remarkably distorted picture. Because it is commonplace, we all know that we do it, and because it is always happening it is something we can become aware of and try to control when necessary. In international relations, the stakes are too great to allow these instinctive reactions to not only influence but actually decide official policy towards other states.