Spontaneous Trait Inference
Westboro Baptist and Jonah Hill
Unlikely pair, wouldn’t you agree?
This week, Westboro Baptist hit the news for unlikely reasons. Singer Brad Paisley took the selfie you see above on his way to perform. Westboro showed up outside the venue to protest the sinfulness of his shows. Paisley showed up to play loud enough for them to hear the music from the outside.
Actor Jonah Hill found himself in hot water after making a derogatory comment to menacing paparazzi. I won’t rewrite the word, but let’s say it was something you wouldn’t want you momma reading on your Twitter. Mr. Hill went on record this week to publicly apologize for the remark, saying it was a “disgusting word” said in a moment of frustration.
Unfortunately for the both, the media has not been so kind. Public reaction, on the other hand, has. Comments, tags, posts, and blogs have buzzed about the sincerity of Mr. Hill’s apology and have extended him forgiveness. Westboro Baptist, on the other hand… well, we all know what the internet has to say about Westboro.
We also know what Westboro has to say about the internet, but that’s another story altogether.
Though on the surface the two stories share little to nothing in common, digging deeper we find they are actually standing on two sides of a fence, a fence we psychologists call the attribution theory.
The attribution theory is a theory that tries to explain how people make sense of others’ behaviors. Take, for example, a scout helping a little old lady across the street. When asked to describe the young man, we might say, “He was very kind.” Notice we didn’t say he was a scout. Nor did we even say he was helping the little old lady. We called him kind.
We associate the scout with kindness because of his actions. (This is called spontaneous trait inference, for all you nerds out there) Given a 1/10th second exposure to a picture of someone’s face, we will associate (or infer) a trait to them. Happy. Sad. Good. Creepy. Hot. Gay. All in 1/10th second.
So much for objectivity.
What does this have to do with Westboro and Mr. Hill? Consider the pictures above. What did you associate to Westboro after hearing their story?
What about Mr. Hill?
Chances are, you don’t have relationship with either, yet you and I find ourselves making judgements about their behavior and their image based on a couple of sentences and a picture. Why would it be any different for us?
In work, in life, in our family – as leaders – we are subject to attribution. People will attribute traits to us based on our actions. And when we goof up, how we respond can change the trait completely. The action we take changes the perception we will get. Notice how both Westboro and Mr. Hill did something socially naughty, yet one is publicly considered as “cruel” and the other considered “apologetic.”
As humans, we can’t always avoid messing up, but we can still do the right thing and own our mistake. Though it may not always get us out of the dog house, it may be the difference between “bigot” and “better.”
I wish all the best for Mr. Hill. It isn’t easy to own up to something socially unacceptable. And as for Westboro, I hope at least they enjoyed the concert.