Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Gail Sahar

Homelessness. Poverty. Who’s to blame? The individual or society? Your answer likely will determine your behavior. Associate Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar has spent years researching the connection between blame and behavior regarding social issues. Lately, she has focused the lens of the “attribution theory” toward political attitudes. Last summer, she presented a research paper titled “On the Importance of Attribution Theory in Political Psychology” to the Annual Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, in Paris. We talked with her about her work.

Explain the theory.

Attribution theory is the study of how people attribute causes for events. It could be for events that happen to you or to other people. The idea is that when something happens, particularly something negative or surprising, we do what’s called a causal search where we think, “OK, what caused that?” For example, a student fails a test. The first thing they probably ask themselves is “why did this happen?” Depending on the cause they choose, their emotions and behavior will be affected. If I think I failed because I’m not very smart, I’ll feel very differently than if I think I failed because the test was unfair, or I didn’t study hard enough. And those attributions will influence whether we try hard the next time. It isn’t only about the attribution of responsibility and the behavior—in between there are emotional reactions to talk about. If you hold someone responsible for something negative, you also feel anger. So if I see someone who is homeless and I think he’s lazy, I’ll feel angry at him for asking me for money. And I won’t want to help him. If I feel that it’s not his fault, then I’ll tend to feel sympathy or pity, and I will want to help him. And that holds up in all these other cases—welfare, abortion.

Why has this area of psychology connected with you?

I like theories that are useful. Some psychological theories are kind of counterintuitive and very distant from reality. What I liked about this is that it explains so much about the real world, so when I teach about it students immediately understand what I’m saying and can understand their own behavior and other people’s behavior.

How much does attribution impact behavior?

A lot. The theory started with talking about academic situations, like why a student in a classroom might feel hopeless. And one of the reasons they seem to feel hopeless is that when they fail they tend to think it’s about them—their own low ability. So it was applied initially there: How do you teach kids to make different attributions? What has been fascinating for me is that this theory applies to so many areas of life.

What does this have to do with political attitudes?

The causal attributions that we decide are important for particular social problems have a lot to do with our political ideology. One of the hallmarks of being politically conservative is that the individual is responsible for problems. So, in general, if you’re poor, someone who is very conservative will say, “It’s about you. You’re not working hard enough.” Liberals are more likely to say that it might be society’s fault, maybe there is discrimination, maybe there aren’t enough jobs, maybe there are all these other factors. These attributions in turn affect emotions and beliefs about how to solve the problem. The other way it plays out is that we do so much blaming in politics that a lot of what successful politicians learn to do is attempt to be perceived as responsible for good things and not responsible for bad things. It’s almost blame management that they do. So if the economy is bad, do we blame the president or not? Do we think he is the cause, or do we think it’s due to other factors out of his control?

How did that play out in the recent election?

In this election, it was very clear. McCain was unable to really take the blame off of the Republicans for the state of the country. He tried. They always try. All politicians on the right and the left really attempt to manage blame. But I don’t think it worked out in this case.

Why is it important to understand the influence of attribution?

For psychologists like myself, we consider it contributing to the body of knowledge of how the mind works. In this case, the theory also has tremendous applications to the real world…. People’s knowledge of this can have a big effect on their behaviors. If I know that by influencing people’s perceptions of responsibility I can influence their attitudes toward public policy, that’s pretty important.

Which public policy attitudes are influenced by attribution?

Well, attitudes toward welfare seem to be influenced by perceptions of the causes of poverty—that one is pretty intuitive. But in my work, I have also found that attitudes toward abortion are determined in part by our perceptions of the causes of unwanted pregnancy. Individuals are more supportive of abortion if they don’t see the woman as responsible for getting pregnant. And more recently, I found evidence that causal attributions for terrorist attacks relate to attitudes toward waging war against terrorism. So, the theory applies to an incredible range of issues.