Your Own Personal Spin Doctor
Posted on May 29, 2012
We all have a built-in spin doctor, our own internal spokesperson who unfailingly offers the most favorable interpretation of our role in events while judging the actions of others in far less flattering light.
Our spin doctor operates automatically, outside of conscious awareness. The doctor is always in, always judging us and others, but judging by a double standard, it would seem. How does the spin doctor judge in each of us? How does the doctor operate in our consciousness?
First, our spin doctor deploys “situational attribution” – we situate the cause of someone’s belief in the environment. “Her success is a result of luck.”
Second, our spin doctor engages “dispositional attribution” – we identify the cause of someone’s belief in the person as an enduring personal trait. “Her success is the result of her intelligence.”
These two operations of the mind (in service of your internal spin doctor) form the core of the “attribution bias.”
This bias leads in our own case to a kind of personal spin doctoring where we attribute our success to positive dispositions while we attribute others’ success to lucky situations. Psychologist and popular skeptic, Michael Shermer, offers telling examples in his recent book, The Believing Brain (http://www.michaelshermer.com/the-believing-brain/): religious believers attribute their own beliefs to intelligence and rational motivation, and yet see other believers as emotionally driven. In political beliefs we see the same bias. We see our own beliefs stemming from reasoned intellectual choice (favor gun control because statistics show less crime), and yet see others believing in gun control to satisfy emotional needs (he’s a bleeding heart liberal who identifies with victims).
The nub: we automatically and subconsciously slant our perceptions of the world, especially the social world, in our own favor.
Both situational and dispositional forms of the attribution bias rear their heads at all stages of law practice. First, when counseling the client, we often attribute their problems to “bad luck,” “fate” or other matters beyond their control. This ignores their own personal role in events that brought them before the law. It also disables the client’s responsibility, thereby weakening their ability to help take control or engage in their own case.
At the same time, we often attribute the beliefs of opposing counsel, the judge, and other parties to some general, often vague, personality characteristic, as opposed to specific evidence and context. This is the classic attribution bias at play in the law. How easily we slip into ridicule or personal attacks when we should concentrate on the more difficult – and meaningful – task of evidence evaluation and argument reconstruction.
We do this to ourselves, as well, in singularly self serving ways, especially when we win or lose a case, a client, an argument. If we win, it was our brilliant tactical maneuvering. But if the other side wins, it was their dumb luck. This prevents intellectual honesty and defeats our ability to learn from our wins and losses. The next case or client may very well suffer as a result.
To keep our spin doctors in check, always look for both dispositional and situation causes, as well as other causes, including the less obvious but still salient ones. In other words, cast the causation net widely when forming beliefs about yourself and others.
Skeptical humility may be the best medicine for our own personal spin doctors.