Attributions of Malintent

A dangerous form of attribution

Posted Apr 07, 2013

  Attributions are the causal explanations people make for why things happen, and they are some of the most studied topics in social psychology. Fritz Heider was one of the first to draw attention to the manner in which people automatically attribute motives and goals to other people. To get a flavor for this tendency, watch this brief clip of shapes and you will see how natural it is to attribute motives to the figures, even though all you are actually seeing are moving circles and triangles. Imagine if the “figures” were people…it would almost be impossible not to see them as having motives and goals.

  If you are like most people who watch the above clip, you see the Big Triangle has having harmful intent, which brings me to the subject of this blog. Think for a moment about people you have been in conflict with, people who see the world very differently than you, or people who have interests that are counter to yours. Do you ever find yourself claiming that they are the way they are because they want to do harm? (e.g., “She lied about me because she is jealous”; “He wanted to make me feel bad”; “They want to see us destroyed”).

  Hold that thought for a moment and now consider the question…When do you intend to harm others? Most people, perhaps with the exception of those high on the dark triad, will generally answer this question, “I try not to harm people. I would only intentionally harm others if they were trying to harm me”.

  This brings me my central point, which is that I believe one of the keys to conflicts and vicious cycles in relationships are attributions of malintent. Although technically not a real word, I think the meaning of ‘malintent’ is pretty clear. ‘Mal’ is a prefix that means bad or wrongful, as in malevolent; thus malintent means having harmful or malicious intent. The point that readers need to take home is that when attributions of malintent emerge, the relationship system will almost certainly take a nosedive.

  The mechanics are fairly easy to understand. First, our perceptual system tends to strongly link effects with intended causes. If we feel harmed in our relationships, we are highly likely to perceive that harm as being intended by someone. People who are high in defensiveness, hostility, and paranoia to begin with are particularly likely to see others actions this way. (I recommend A. T. Beck’s book, Prisoners of Hate, for a detailed account of this).

  Second, perhaps the most unjustifiable position in society is the individual who harms others for selfish pleasure. As such, virtually no one (except psychopaths) is consciously identifying themselves as wanting to harm others for pleasure.

  Third, to be accused of acting with malintent can itself be considered a form of attack. Thus, the individual will almost without exception defend him or herself, and claim that the motives of the accuser are highly suspect. (You almost certainly have been on the receiving end of such a claim—how did you respond?). The circle is now closed with the accuser being accused and thus the ante is upped as each individual tries to justify why the other is working against them in an immoral way, but they are only doing what is necessary to defend their honor or dignity.

  It is, of course, the case that sometimes people do have malintent, and it is crucial that we identify it. However, we must keep in mind that such attributions are inherently dangerous to relational harmony, and thus we should be cautious about making such claims. One piece of advice is that when we make such attributions in everyday (nonviolent) conflicts, we should speak from our own experience (“I experienced this act as if X was intentionally trying to harm me”) and listen to the narrative of the other, which almost certainly will not include a conscious intent to do harm. This gives dialogue a chance, prior to spiraling the system into a vicious destructive cycle.