Causal Confusion When You Grow Up in the U.S.A.


 My wife, Nancy, and I have often wondered aloud how so many entertainers who have been highly “successful” in the typical American understanding of that word  can self-destruct. Elvis, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Janis Joplin appear from an outsider’s perspective to have many of the things that Americans seek. Why could they not stop their decline into oblivion, we ask.

This kind of agentic or individualistic thinking presumes that individuals shape the course of their lives. If some miserable condition befalls you, resist its grasp on your body and consciousness—or so the individualistic analysis of causation goes.

That kind of thinking is guilty of what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” Assigning blame or credit to individuals exaggerates the control individuals have, and therefore the responsibility they bear. Such thinking forgets that many factors in the environment and general external world of each of us are not only powerfully shaping our “choices”, but are beyond the curative reach of individual actors. Parents, luck, race, class, sexual preference, and experiences all serve as not-so-hidden shapers.

The film Amy documents the slide into premature death of the jazz singer Amy Winehouse. Drugs and alcohol in great magnitude and variety choked her vibrancy and talent with a death grip. For some reason as we watched the film and I was asked to think about the roles of managers, parents, record companies, promoters, and the drive for profit in shoving Amy Winehouse over the cliff, I felt a lot of embarrassment.

I have written numerous articles, the theme of which has been “Notice the destructive effect of individualism in our lives.”  So has Nancy.  We are both firmly committed to urging others to see the situational, external variables that shape our lives.  But then, how could we so frequently expect people to be the captains of their lives, choosing to do healthful things and choosing to avoid destructive things?

The explanation I am left with is that we have blindly absorbed from our cultural experiences much of the self-help language and inferential machinery that we so deplore.

If you see Amy, it may provide a useful litmus test for you. Are you regularly committing the fundamental attribution error?

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