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The Social Psychology of Being Railroaded

Why having only half the story is problematic.

Key points

  • The human mind seems inclined to fill in gaps and reduce uncertainties.
  • In the processing of social information, people will often take partial information and develop complete narratives.
  • Often, forming narratives about others based on limited information can be deeply problematic.
  • We can understand someone being "railroaded" as someone who has been judged unfairly based on only partial information.
QuinceCreative / Pixabay
Source: QuinceCreative / Pixabay

Picture this: You're fully sunken into the couch, watching your favorite true crime show. After the mandatory initial scene with the victim dead on the floor, covered in blood, the detectives start to discuss motive. They quickly find that the victim's live-in boyfriend and the victim had been having major problems of late. Several neighbors, in fact, had complained about screaming and fighting coming from their apartment. Interestingly, the investigation turns up that the boyfriend had recently forced his way to be a co-owner of her rather-large IRA account. To add flames to the fire, note that the boyfriend has a criminal record that includes multiple incidents of violence. Further, he is eerily nowhere to be found for the next 24 hours, in spite of this murder being plastered all over the news.

Like most of us, you probably think, "Oh, I bet it was the boyfriend!" And you secretly might even feel really smart for 'figuring that out.'

Of course, if you know how these shows work, you know that there is much more to the story and that there is a better than 50/50 chance that the boyfriend is totally innocent in this case.

Why do we do this? Why do our minds fill in blanks based on partial information and, so often, jump to conclusions?

Before we get into the scientific literature on this topic, think about this: How often in everyday life do people jump to conclusions in this way?

The Attributional Ape

Going all the way back to the 1940s, social psychologists have documented, in various ways, the fact that the human mind seems to be fully primed to make attributions about all kinds of outcomes (Heider & Simmel, 1944). This idea, which is often referred to under the umbrella of attribution theory has broad-reaching effects, speaking to how our minds naturally like to form full pictures of people, places, and things. We automatically fill in the blanks, regularly with full-out narratives.

When we hear the details of the grizzly murder presented at the top of this post, we quickly conclude that the sketchy live-in boyfriend is the culprit. Decades of research on attributional reasoning show that we do this in all kinds of ways. And we do this all the time.

When a student hands a paper in late to a teacher, attributional reasoning often kicks in, with the teacher trying to figure out if the student's excuse is plausible. The teacher has partial information and is trying to fill in the blanks (asking questions such as whether the student is "a good" student, whether this failure is part of a broader pattern, etc.).

When a colleague is late to a meeting, other colleagues will (often silently) try to figure out if this tardiness is some idiosyncratic detail of the situation (e.g., perhaps a massive traffic jam) or, rather, if it is some character flaw of the tardy colleague.

When two of your friends have some kind of conflict and one of them independently reports their side of the situation to you, you may well find yourself agreeing with the narrative that this friend presents—often lock, stock, and barrel. Sometimes, in a situation like this, our attributional reasoning that encourages the creation of narratives is so strong that we might not even feel a need to hear the other side. You might find yourself saying, for instance, "I've heard enough!"

Renowned social psychologist Hal Kelley (1967) described people as naïve scientists when it comes to trying to understand the social world. We take in data and try to draw conclusions. Sometimes our conclusions are spot-on. Other times, they are radically off-target. And this is a problem.

How Having Half the Story Often Leads to Getting the Whole Story Wrong

For eight years, I served as the department chair of psychology at my university. In academia, a very high proportion of complaints start at the department chair level. A student might complain that some professor treated them disrespectfully in class. A professor might complain that a student cheated on an exam. Etc.

One thing I learned very quickly in this role was this: Never make any judgments or take any actions until you have as much information as possible. In every conflict, there are at least two sides to the story.

Given our natural tendencies toward creating coherent narratives in our minds, based on our strong tendencies to make attributions about our worlds, it is easy to fall into the trap of hearing a complaint from one party, filling in the blanks with any relevant information that you might have, and coming up with a judgment. One reason that this process is problematic is that once people come up with judgments, changing our minds tends to be famously difficult (see Anderson, 1983).

This combination of (a) our strong tendencies to take limited information and create coherent narratives coupled with (b) our powerful proclivities against changing our attitudes and beliefs leads to all kinds of social problems in our daily lives.

So, if you've ever seen a situation in which someone takes partial information (such as one person's side regarding a conflict between two people), forms a total judgment about someone else, and even takes strong public action without even making an effort to get the other side of the story, I'd say that our deep-rooted attributional nature helps us to understand why.

The Psychology of Being "Railroaded"

I live directly across from a very busy freight train line. Don't feel that bad for me—the glorious Hudson River sits just on the other side of the tracks and its beauty totally outweighs the disruptive nature of the train. Interestingly, in living here, I've gained an appreciation for the many train-related concepts that have made it into our lexicon and culture. Freight trains, unlike passenger trains (typically), are often as long as a full mile and they often take five or more minutes to pass. When you live among the freight trains as I do, you totally get why people talk about freight trains as essentially being unstoppable.

This leads to the idea of being "railroaded" which, as I see it, happens when some belief or perception about someone, even if based only on partial information, gains enough momentum (like a freight train) that it becomes essentially unstoppable. Interestingly, someone who is being "railroaded" may well actually have a whole other side to the story that others don't know or don't even want to hear. The person being railroaded might, in fact, be largely in the right.

Because of our strong attributional tendencies—coupled with our deep proclivities toward belief perseverance—we can easily see how someone can get railroaded by others based on limited and even erroneous information.

Often, when it comes to the human social world, facts actually don't matter. Human minds are attribution machines that are often more interested in having a story that makes sense rather than having the truth.

Bottom Line

As is true with any species, we simply are who we are. Humans are fallible in all kinds of ways. In fact, many of our faults exist partly because these faults led to survival and/or reproductive benefits for our ancestors. Having minds that quickly fill in gaps and that create complete narratives helps us deal effectively with all kinds of situations. This has been true for generations in the human experience (see Geher & Wedberg, 2020).

But, as explicated above, our tendencies to think like scientists in understanding our social world is often deeply flawed and even problematic. I would say that this issue is one of the core features of the human lived experience.

What can we do about it? Attributional reasoning and belief perseverance are foundational parts of our evolved social psychology. That said, understanding these issues can actually help us to override them in many ways. Simply knowing that humans have a strong tendency to jump to conclusions based on limited information can help us to step back in our own worlds. This understanding can help us to take steps to hear "both sides" of stories and to hold off on rushing to judgment.

The older you get, the more you come to realize that there is nearly always more than meets the eye. Truly understanding this fact can help us better—and more compassionately—navigate the often-treacherous waters of the social world.

References

Anderson, C. A. (1983). Abstract and Concrete Data in the Conservatism of Social
Theories: When Weak Data Lead to Unshakeable Beliefs. Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology, 19, 93–108. (Chapter 4)

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An experimental study of apparent behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259. https://doi.org/10.2307/1416950

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192–238.

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