The Joys Of Dispositional Attribution

When women complain that men are acting like tough-guy assholes, and men that women are being bitchy, both sides are making a crucial assumption: that the other party is behaving like this because it is their nature. In cognitive attribution theory this is called a dispositional explanation. But people do things for one of two reasons: either because they want to, or else because they think – rightly or wrongly – that they have to. In the latter case, they know this about themselves, and so explain their own behaviour in terms of the constraints they face; but others’ behaviour, even when identical, they prefer to explain in terms of their depravity.

Thinking about the constraints and choices facing the opponent is downright dangerous, as we risk the realisation that the other is doing the best he can, by his lights, in a situation not of his making. If not squelched by a hostile dispositional attribution, this realisation might make us understand and sympathise with him. That would be no fun at all; it stands to lose us not only our enjoyable sense of victimhood and outrage, but also the pleasures of wildly over-generalised moral condemnation.

The orthodox view of relationships is that women only become unpleasant in response to spousal mistreatment, whereas men are pre-programmed to be sullen or even brutal slobs and incompetents. Let us therefore turn the attributional structure on its head and postulate that men become sullen slobs etc. etc. only under the pressure of spousal nagging, whereas women are following their innate or maternal scripting of How To Be A Harpy. Is this any the more credible? Probably not, but it is hardly any less credible either. When considering all human behaviour we must always consider both childhood programming and the response to individual experience, predicament and incentives; there is no reason to treat any one sex as tabula rasa.

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 09:00 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

Leave a Reply