Lawsuits arise from a process social psychologists call “naming, blaming and claiming.” I broke my toe last week (youch!) when I was talking to my husband from another room and walking into a closet to hang up my jacket. Jammed it on the door frame, once again engaging in the risk-courting activity of walking and talking at the same time.
If I were mentally ill, I suppose I could go so far as to name my husband as the source of my own lumpish carelessness; blame him for my injury; and, claim some sort of recompense beyond his willingness to kiss my toe to “make it all better.”
“Well, I guess that doorway was just too narrow,” my husband the litigator joked. “I suppose you could sue the architect.”
Much litigation flows from incidents nearly as foolish as this. If you’d like to see a collection of such outrages, you likely already know where to go — Walter Olson’s Overlawyered where suits against McDonalds for obesity and the like can regularly be found. Today’s entry, about the alcoholic who sued Marriotts “after falling over a stairway while plowed” is a prime example.
Naming, blaming and claiming (as well as the litigation that flows from this process) will always be with us. But if you have some degree of communication with the people likely to name and blame you before making a legal claim against you, an understanding of the social psychology behind that process may well help you understand and deal with the problem “on the ground,” i.e., short of suit.
Today, I’m directing you to Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror as a good primer on the process and its underlying cause — Fundamental Attribution Error. Link courtesy of @JuryVox who any litigator or dispute resolver should be following on Twitter along with @annereed.
Whenever we witness something harmful or unexpected, we humans look to make attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Social psychologists have been studying the way we make those attributions for the last half century. Part of that research, known as attribution theory, focuses on how we draw inferences about how much control people exert over their behavior: the more control they appear to exert, the more we hold them responsible or blameworthy for the consequences of their actions. To assess control, we draw inferences about, among other things, whether the person acted volitionally or intentionally and about the person’s motivation. When we think an injurer acted intentionally and maliciously we attribute blame — which is accompanied by a desire to punish the injurer and to compensate the victim.
This naive psychology of blame attributions is fairly automatic and depends on more or less instantaneous impressions. And although our attributions result from inferences of, among other things, intent and motive, we are hampered by the fact that we cannot directly access someone else’s motives or intentions (in fact, we’re not very good at ascertaining our own). And, often, the individuals who we are judging have an interest in presenting themselves as innocent — regardless of the truth of the matter. In making attributions about another person’s harm-causing actions, therefore, we are often forced to rely on imperfect external cues. Conflict between individuals and groups often emerges precisely because attributional ambiguity leads to divergent interpretations and reactions. What a victim might perceive as outrageous, an injurer might construe as merely unfortunate or even richly deserved. The legal system is caught up in these attributional contests every day. For instance, most of tort law — in doctrine and in practice — is devoted to the question of resolving competing attributional accounts for the same personal injury.
Continue reading at the linked headline above. My most popular article on this process – Conspiracy Theories and Granfalloons can be found here.
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