Personality and Social Interaction

Psychology in everyday life.

Attributional Biases and Violent Soccer Play

In defense of Lambert’s character.

On November 5, 2009, during a soccer match between the University of New Mexico and Brigham Young University, UNM defender Elizabeth Lambert behaved badly. She kicked and punched other players and even pulled another woman's pony tail, causing her to fall to the ground. A video of Lambert's behavior was quickly posted on the internet causing her much embarrassment and shame. In an interview with the New York Times, Lambert admitted that the video makes her look like a monster. She also said, "That is not me," "I can't believe I did that," and "That's not the type of player I am." Most people, however, disagree with her, and explanations of her behavior have focused almost exclusively on her personality.

Lambert video

People seem to think that Lambert's actions on the field reflect a deep-seated anger, moral defect, or unconscious conflict. It has also been suggested that Lambert has "a lot of sexual aggression" (Longman, 2009, p. B11). In support of this "poor character" hypothesis, one blogger, a psychologist, even quoted scripture stating, "a good tree cannot bear bad fruit" (Matthew 7: 18-21). These simple explanations are comforting, because they reaffirm what most people already believe: Good people do good things and bad people do bad things. However, they neglect the findings of social psychology, which show that behavior is a function of the person and the situation.

Explanations that focus on Lambert's personality tend to neglect the context in which her behavior occurred. This tendency, to attribute behavior to personality rather than situational factors is called the "fundamental attribution error" (Ross, 1977). It was first described by Heider and later developed by Jones (Jones & Davis, 1965). Likewise, people tend to attribute their own behavior to situational factors and other people's behavior to dispositional factors. This tendency is called the "actor-observer bias" (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). Accordingly, Lambert says that, during the game, she was frustrated, because she was called names, elbowed, taken to the ground with cheap shots, and her shorts were tugged at. Of course, many factors, both dispositional and situational, caused Lambert to behave as she did.

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Social psychological research on attributional processes, as well as aggression and violence, should make us think twice before we rush to judgment. To understand Lambert's actions, we must recognize the power of situational factors to influence behavior. Such explanations of behavior are not meant to excuse people of responsibility for their actions.  Rather, accurate explanations are useful, because they allow us to predict and sometimes influence future events. They also allow us to make sense of disturbing and surprising outcomes. According to the New York Times, Lambert is now seeing a clinical psychologist, presumably in order to understand why she behaved badly. Although therapy might lead to greater insight and self-awareness, she might be better off talking to a social psychologist, who would not necessarily assume that her behavior during that game reflects who she is in either a general or permanent way.

Jones, E. & Davis, K. (1965). From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in social psychology. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, (Vol. 2, pp. 219-266). New York: Academic Press.

Jones, E. & Nisbett, R. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. Jones, D. Kanouse, H. Kelley, R. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 79-94). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Longman, J. (2009, November 18). Those soccer plays, in context. The New York Times, p. B11. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/sports/soccer/18soccer.html

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

 

Nicholas Herrera, Ph.D., is a visiting professor at DePaul University.

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