Attribution Errors

My last couple of posts have been drawn from brief essays I wrote for a social psychology class I took last semester. When Laina Eartharcher shared the second one on her blog Laina’s Collection, she commented that “What I get out of this is that we’re not as “weird” or “disordered as much of the medical profession makes us out to be. Maybe we’re just more aware of it, and it might be heightened for us through our wiring, but it might not be so “wrong” after all.”

It turns out that’s exactly what I wanted to get across by posting some of my thoughts from that class. 🙂 I had that experience all the way through, in fact: I’d read some section of the textbook and think, “Ok, so everyone (in aggregate, at least) has this experience. So why is it so pathologized in autistics?”

Consider how we interpret and explain other people’s behavior; this is often wrapped up in the so-called “theory of mind” that autistic people supposedly lack (but don’t really). The way it is presented, autistics have difficulty taking the perspectives of others, and understanding what is going on inside their heads. However, people make decisions all the time when interpreting others’ words or behavior, and they don’t always get it right; one prominent example in our textbook was of a man misinterpreting a woman’s friendliness for flirtation. In order to interpret the meaning of behavior, we need to attribute it to something, and in this case the friendly smile is misattributed to sexual interest.

Our attributions are also affected by how much we know about what the person in question is going through. Let’s say someone gets impatient while waiting in line, and snaps at the person ahead of him. If you know he’s been under a lot of stress and is maybe on a tight schedule, you might be more understanding and cut him some slack. This is called a situational attribution; you are attributing his crankiness to his external situation. If, however, you don’t know this person at all, you might be more inclined to assume he’s just a nasty person with a bad attitude. This is called a dispositional attribution; you are attributing his snappishness to his personality, or disposition. We assume his hostility is due to his personal traits rather than adverse circumstances.

With me so far? These two things combine into the idea of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to downplay the effects of circumstances and instead attribute behavior to personal traits…when it comes to other people. When we justify our own behavior, though, we tend to point to the situation for an explanation. So if someone else is late, they’re lazy and inconsiderate. If we ourselves are late, we were held up in traffic, or had a last-minute emergency that we couldn’t avoid. (But of course, if we do something noble and good, that’s all us, and not circumstantial at all. 😉

There are several potential reasons for this fundamental attribution error, not least of which is the fact that we have a lot more knowledge about our own circumstances than those of other people, so we can put our own behavior into context more easily. Plus we want to feel good about ourselves, so if we make a mistake we look for external reasons why we might have slipped up. There are cultural influences, too; individualistic cultures like the US are more likely to attribute things to a person’s individual traits. But they all add up to a tendency to interpret other people’s behavior differently than we want our own behavior to be interpreted.

It also means that, by ignoring situational influences, people misinterpret others’ intentions all the time. So why are autistics particularly singled out for having “theory of mind” deficits when we have trouble with social interpretation?

In the end, this relates back to what Damian Milton calls the “double empathy problem.” In this way of thinking about it, social communication “issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world.” Of course, when you’re autistic, and interacting primarily with people who do not share your way of experiencing the world, things like misinterpretations and misattributions may indeed be more frequent. But that’s not an autistic deficit, that’s a deficit of mutual understanding.

So yes, in addition to finding social psychology fascinating, I went through the entire class thinking, “Hey, that’s a thing autistics get accused of “struggling with” all the time, but in reality the human as a social animal is just…kinda bizarre.” At least we have people out there studying these things to try to make sense of them! 😉

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On Alert

Here’s another bit of writing from my social psychology class last semester. We were reading and discussing the influence that groups have on our level of physiological arousal, and how being in a group tends to heighten our sense of arousal, which can be experienced as excitement or as stress. There was one section that broke out a few different reasons for this increased arousal, which I found interesting in light of my tendency to feel overwhelmed or anxious in the presence of others.

The first one was evaluation apprehension. When you feel others are judging you, you feel “on alert.” An obvious example is the way most people feel nervous about public speaking, or performing a solo musical piece for the first time. Everyone’s eyes are on you, and you worry about how you will look to them. But the same goes for informal social situations, especially if you have been teased or ostracized in the past for being socially awkward. You start to feel as if every social occasion will involve evaluation and judgment, and this breeds anxiety.

The second factor was distraction. When you are performing a task as part of a group, it’s easy for your attention to become split between doing the task yourself and looking to see how the rest of your group is doing, especially if you notice someone else faltering. For example, I used to sing in a small choir, and it was very hard to stay focused on my part if another member shifted position, or stumbled on the timing, or otherwise drew my attention.

The last factor mentioned was the “mere presence” of other people. This didn’t seem well-explained to me, just thrown out there as a catch-all to say that people (and non-human animals) still get aroused by the presence of others even if they aren’t distracted or competing with each other. But for me it did connect with a third factor that comes into play, which is sensory overload from the presence of other people. This could just be considered a part of the distraction factor, because it is often sensory input from a group that causes distraction for me, but it’s also there as an unconscious influence even if it doesn’t distract me at the time. So yes, the mere presence of other people—especially in large numbers—definitely has an effect on me as well.

Social Influence

I was looking back at some writing I did for my social psychology class last spring, and found some thoughts I wanted to share and expand on here. The subject in question was conformity and group influence, and specifically the classification of influence into two types: normative influence and informational influence.

Normative influence is essentially when you follow what others are doing in order to fit in. This might manifest as peer pressure, but also things like following the ways of a different culture when visiting. Informational influence is when you follow what others are doing or saying in order to get things right. When you don’t trust your knowledge in a given situation, you might go along with the crowd if they seem to know what they are doing.

As I was reading about this, I kept thinking about how these concepts apply to autistic people. I don’t think we’re immune to social influence and the pressure to conform, but our relationship to social interaction is often so different from the typical population that we may respond to them in different ways.

For example, the textbook mentioned that people often respond to normative influence without realizing it; they pick up social cues and adjust their behavior accordingly to fit in. It’s a sort of unconscious conformity. But for an autistic person who may not intuitively notice or understand those social cues, what often results is not unconscious conformity but unconscious nonconformity. The social rejection that often follows is then completely baffling.

Personally, I think many autistic people blend informational and normative influence to a large extent: we absorb the social “rules” through an informational process of studying others and learning what we’re “supposed” to do. We may then follow those rules for normative reasons, but we got there through an informational process. There was an example in the book where the author was in an audience where people rapped on the table instead of clapping, and I found this to be a good illustration: due to normative influence, the author didn’t want to be the only person clapping, and he learned what to do instead through informational influence. I think this is fairly typical of the way autistic people use the two to try to fit in.

I also, however, experience a strong aversion to some forms of normative influence; in many cases, I just don’t care to do what everyone else is doing. If something seems nonsensical to me, I’d rather simply be elsewhere than follow along to fit in. (This likely underlies some of my problematic relationship with groups, as mentioned in last week’s post.) I also tend not to privilege group consensus over my own research or perceptions when it comes to factual matters. I’ve seen both of these attitudes in a lot of other autistic people, too, and it really makes me wonder what would happen if some of the classic conformity studies were repeated with autistic participants.

Isolation and Belonging

I was really struck by a recent post on Sonia Boué’s blog, titled The art world is Social. In it, she wrote about how even organizations centered around artists with disabilities emphasize the need for collaboration and sociality in the art world in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the difficulties facing people with social disabilities. And when the social world is disabling for you, it isn’t helpful to be told that you must be social in order to do art properly.

It’s a great post, and I urge you to go read the whole thing. But this line in particular hit me really hard:

“It’s inappropriate to advise against isolation to a group who can’t help it – for whom it can be both a feature of creative life and/or a consequence of their disablement.”

I have felt so frustrated in the past for exactly this reason, both in relation to creative aspirations and in other areas of my life. So often, I have encountered the advice—rarely phrased as advice, actually, and more often as an unbreakable rule—that I must connect with others in order to truly reach my potential. I must join groups, network, and collaborate. I must find a community to connect with (and online doesn’t count).

And it’s not like I don’t want to connect; I very often do. I’m also a damned fine contributor when I’m on a team or in a group, if I do say so myself. But it doesn’t come naturally or easily to me, and simply telling me it’s a necessity for real creativity/spirituality/humanity just makes me feel excluded. I need to have it recognized that my participation in a group will also require breaks from that group, and it would be nice to have some kind of support to help me make the initial approach.

But groups have another problem for me, and that is that I never feel fully comfortable anywhere, or at least not for long. I’m always suppressing some parts of myself in order to share other parts, and while this can be a valuable social skill that is pretty much expected of everyone to some degree (acceptable behavior and conversation in the workplace, for example, is much more restricted than while relaxing with close friends) it becomes a strain when it’s required in a situation where openness is expected. If I’m in a group where I’m expected to allow myself to become known, but there are several important aspects of myself that I don’t think will be understood, I end up stressed out and hyper-vigilant, trying to manage what information I reveal and conceal, while at the same time trying to be relaxed and friendly. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance gets to me and I have to leave.

As VisualVox pointed out in a recent blog post on a similar topic, “fitting in” by masking and blending is often enough to make others feel comfortable, and to give them the feeling that we belong in the group, but that’s not the same thing as being comfortable ourselves. And many of us are just not suited to clear-cut affiliations and easy-to-grasp labels.

I am, as this blog’s title implies, quite eclectic. I have a number of different interests, and a broad range of knowledge (as well as strong opinions) across several areas that don’t translate well into soundbites and often leave me in a weird place with respect to different people who share some of my views but not others. I also like to learn new things, and I tend to grow and change in ways that sometimes alienate me from people who knew me earlier. So I don’t really expect to find a community that perfectly matches all aspects of me with my ever-changing, eclectic interests and my autistic neurotype and my odd sense of humor and my unconventional perspectives. I don’t really know what I do want, to be honest. I just want to find some balance between solitude and connection, in some way that feels like actual belonging.

Photo of a racoon at the edge of a pond, looking back at the viewer with its "hands" in the water

Short Post, With Snakes

I’m tired. I’ve had a busy week with a lot of frustrations, and every time I start writing something I keep second-guessing whether I really want to say that, and wondering if it will invite conflict that I am not up to dealing with. And it’s not just events in my life that have exhausted me this week; it’s also the endless drumbeat of bad news and worse news and downright horrible news that keeps filling my inbox and my podcasts and my social media feeds. So many people are marginalized and under attack, and it just feels…relentless.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely disengage, because I want to stay informed and able to contribute, in whatever ways I can, to the efforts to make things better. I have also realized that I am fascinated by the research I have read around prejudice and stigma, and while my main focus for the paper I am writing is the stigma surrounding autism, I am drawn to read more broadly about stigma. This doesn’t make my reading list any sunnier, of course, but there is something about approaching this subject in a systematic, sociological way that helps me think more clearly instead of feeling like there’s nothing to be done about it. Understanding a problem is the first step toward addressing it.

So I am going to dive back into that for now, and leave this blog post short. And here’s a photo of a nice little garter snake I met today—snakes are stigmatized, too, after all.

Slender garter snake next to a small rock on a dirt road, in mixed light and shadow