Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

People, Situations, Attributions, and the Hollywood Movie

Why we see movie characters as being redeemed.
I went to see Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino the other day. This excellent movie is an example of what can be called a redemption drama. In movies of this type, a flawed character has a set of transformative experiences that causes them to act differently than they did at the start of the movie. Ultimately, the main character performs actions that would have been unthinkable for him or her at the start of the movie. Without giving anything significant away about Gran Torino that newspaper reviews haven't already divulged, the character played by Clint Eastwood slowly grows to love a Hmong family that lives next door, despite his racist attitudes at the start of the film.

We leave the theater after these films uplifted, because the main character has changed (typically for the better). In Gran Torino, we see Clint Eastwood's character as a racist at the start of the film, and as a move loving character at the end.

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This conclusion is typical of the way we evaluate other people. Decades of research in social psychology has demonstrated that when we assess the actions of other people, we attribute their actions to some aspect of their character. That is, we typically assume that other people's actions are caused by their personality characteristics.

In general, though, people's actions are caused by an interaction between their personality characteristics and their environment. For example, most of us don't think of ourselves as particularly mean or nasty people. Nonetheless, most of us have gotten angry at another driver on the road at some point, and some of us might even have yelled at that driver or even made a colorful gesture. We realize that this loss of self-control is not a deep aspect of our character, but rather a reaction to the situation we were in.

In fact, the same decades of research suggest that when we explain our own behavior, we tend to focus on the influence of the situation we are in rather than the influence of our personality characteristics. The observation that we attribute other people's actions to their personality characteristics but our own actions to the situation has been called the Fundamental Attribution Error by social psychologists. This pattern of judgments is an error, because we tend to under-estimate the importance of our personality characteristics in our own behavior and to under-estimate the role of the environment in other people's behavior.

Interestingly, the power of the Hollywood redemption drama rests on the fundamental attribution error. If we viewed other people's behavior as being driven primarily by the environment, these dramas would have less force. What makes these movies satisfying is that we view the main character as having undergone a profound change. As a result, these movies give us hope that we too may someday be able to change the behaviors that we are least proud of.

However, we must not lose sight of the importance of the environment in affecting our behavior. While we tend to explain our own behaviors based on the environment, we tend to make these explanations for behaviors that are out of the ordinary (like flipping off a driver who cuts us off). We do not recognize the influence of our day-to-day environment on our behavior any more than a fish notices that it is swimming in water. Thus, we assume that our own transformative moments will occur as a result of some key experience worthy of a Hollywood movie. Sometimes, though, changing our behavior can be done most easily by just changing our daily environment. Changes in the environment may not make for a gripping film, but they do make for long-lasting changes in behavior.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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