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Can Race Take the Responsibility for Racially-Motivated Crime?

Causal attribution for bias-motivated crime: Individual vs. situation

People's social cognitions and perceptions about real events are more complicated than their performances in controlled laboratory settings. How people (particularly the news media) describe and explain bias-motivated crime appears to deviate from, and challenge the findings in the attribution literature of social psychology. 

The issues include: (1) a tendency to assign the responsibility to the victims for their victimization, rather than to the offender (see my early post: "Does the victim cause hate crime?"), (2) a tendency to make the external attribution for the violence (e.g., over-emphasizing the offender group affiliation as the explanation for their bias), and (3) the confusion about whether "race" represents a functional group that is capable of taking the responsibility for racially-motivated crime. The current discussion focuses on the remaining two issues.

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Attribution theory, as pioneered by Fritz Heider, Hal Kelley, "Ned" Jones, Lee Ross, Bernard Weiner, and other researchers, has immensely impacted the fields of social psychology, organizational psychology, mental health, education, among others. One of the key principles of the theory postulates that individuals attribute causes of outcomes and actions into two types, including "external" and "internal" attributions. The external or situational attribution assigns causality to factors outside the individual whereas the internal or dispositional attribution assigns causality to factors within the person, such as mental capacity, intention, motivation, or other inner characteristics. The distinction between the two is closely related to determining the responsibility of the target person. Attribution is by no means accurate. The fundamental attribution error refers to people's tendency to over-emphasize dispositional or internal explanations for the behavior of others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.

It is unfortunate that there are few recent investigations in the attribution field, though many relevant psychological issues remain to be explored. For example, attribution literature has not adequately explained the reason for two opposite attribution styles: Depressed people over-blame themselves for their negative experiences, whereas psychopaths, who may be found both in prison and in managerial positions, feel no remorse and no responsibility for tormenting others. The current discussion concerns another overlooked issue in attribution research that involves people's (particularly the news media's) misperception about the internal and situational factors for bias-motivated crime.

For the crime, the distinction between the offender's mental state (e.g., using the perceived differences between the offender and victim to rationalize and generate the offense) and the offender's racial or other group affiliations is clear. The former is the internal factor whereas the latter represents the external factor. Although a difference in group membership between the hate offender and victim is often a necessary condition for defining hate crime, recognizing the difference is not sufficient for understanding and overcoming ambiguities in identifying the transgression. Neither is there evidence suggesting that other people sharing the same group membership with the hate offender(s) endorse the hate crime. For example, a recent survey by FBI shows that there were far less than one percent of the members of a particular group (e.g., racial or religious one) who were involved in hate crimes (around 7,000 bias-motivated offenders known to police in the U. S. in 2007). Because both offenders for hate crime and law-abiding people share the same group memberships, the commonalty between criminals and non criminals is an invalid explanation for the offenders' behavior.

However, without hesitation, difficulty, and justification, the news media tends to generalize racially motivated crime as a manifestation of racial or intergroup conflict, as if the offenders were the representatives of their race and had implemented the intention of the category. It is understandable that social contexts, which interact with the offender's distorted cognition and learning experiences, play a role in generating bias-motivated offenses. However, the news media's misattribution creates the impression that it is the offender's race or other group memberships, not the individual offender, which is responsible for the crime. Unscrupulously talking about racial conflicts will certainly increase the circulation and viewing rates for the media, but it does not create any understanding about the offender's mental structure and process that regulate the criminal behavior.

The final issue is both psychological and political one. Although the news media and many researchers in social sciences treat "race" as a "group," racial categories, which denote collections of phenotype-based individuals correlated with some social variables, do not actually possesses the group dynamics. The key group components include leaders and followers who interact or communicate with one another according to their roles or status specified by some explicit or unwritten rules or norms, with their performances characterized by a high level of cohesion and normative consensus and by shared emotional involvement in evaluation and perceptions about the meanings and missions of their actions. Therefore, unlike an organization or a nation that serves as its own agent, a racial category is not a functional group that has the normal bureaucratic structures, can formulate and initiate decisions and actions, thus can take the responsibility for its actions.

In short, instead of blaming the individual offender, the popular explanation about bias-motivated crime is characterized by blaming the victim distinctiveness and the offender's racial or other types of affiliation. Are there any new psychological explanations for the misattributions?

Key Sun  is a psychologist and social worker. He has taught at Central Washington University and Bastyr University.

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