Explaining Horizontal and Intra-Community Hostility: An Introduction by way of the FAE

So, over on Mano Singham’s blog, our resident physics expert wonders about a question outside his beam-control house:

[Given support for some aspects of the struggles against oppression targeting LGBTQIA folks for their gender, sex, or sexuality] what factors exist that are so strong that they can overcome the natural desire for solidarity with all the communities under the LGBTQIA umbrella[?]

Mano’s a smart guy, as are both my readers, so he already has some potentially informative analogs in mind: immigrant communities and nativist/colonial forms of oppression:

It is the case that on other issues such as xenophobia, some people may view some immigrant minorities as ‘worthy’ and others as ‘unworthy’ and favor the former over the latter

but this is only helpful because it establishes that such distinctions are possible and are not unique to LGBTQIA folks. It doesn’t answer the specific question about what forces divide what some might expect would be a [more] unified LGBTQIA community. So let’s work on answering that. I’m not exactly sure how many posts we’ll do in this series; I’ve not got it all mapped out. But it will be several, I’m sure, each trying to break off of this larger topic one manageable chunk.

One of the biggest problems is what psychology calls the fundamental attribution error. The FAE is a result of the functioning of heuristics: short cuts to decision making or creating an understanding that frequently lead to wrong answers, but are used because they don’t always lead to wrong answer and because they greatly shorten the time required to make a decision.

One can easily imagine how a brain that operates on heuristics can evolutionarily out-compete a brain that does not. The classic example relates to how humans see agency in the world even where there is none. If a human sees grass moving, that might indicate that a predator is creeping through the grass too low to be seen. It also might indicate a local puff of wind. Assuming that it’s a predator rather than going to investigate the area where the grass moved to gain harder evidence is probably a good thing, on average. Likewise, if you see a fruit tree with fruit you’d like to eat, there might be a chasm between here and there. Maybe it would be more productive to climb a tree next to you and scout the route before you travel. But it is a good idea, on average, to simply head towards the route and worry about a chasm only after you’ve got direct evidence of it.

The basic idea here is that acquiring information has a cost. Proceding on imperfect information with the resulting imperfect decision making is nonetheless cost-effective so long as either the costs of gaining information are sufficiently high and the costs of an imperfect decision * the frequency of your decision being imperfect are sufficiently low. Typically the costs of an imperfect decision are greater than the costs of acquiring information, but remember that imperfect information isn’t zero information. You’ve got some information on hand, and you’re going to get some decisions right even through this imperfect process. But exactly how much more it costs to gain information and exactly how often you will get things wrong if you don’t acquire more information are ultimately determinative of how successful your heuristic (your decision-making shortcut) turns out to be.

Back to the FAE. The FAE is our tendency to over-attribute personal characteristics and under-attribute environmental characteristics when judging the behavior of others as compared to judging ourselves. Definitionally, the FAE only applies when the “judging” attributes motive, responsibility, or blame, but there are a few other tightly related judgements that are not technically FAE that I’ll also deal with here.

As an example of how the Fundamental Attribution Error operates in real life, I might assume that Mano’s physics career came about because that’s what Mano wanted to do. And I’m probably partly right. But what if hMano (a hypothetical version of our own real-life FtB Mano) would have preferred a career as a choreographer, but scholarship money was more available for studying math and science, which he liked well enough even if he did not ultimately prefer them? It’s also possible that the right mentor appeared at the right time offering a glowing recommendation letter to get into physics grad school, but he didn’t have similar mentor support to gain access to an MFA program. It’s still possible that a dance-enthusiast hMano might get into an MFA dance program, but faced with uncertainty applying to physics grad school might appear the safer bet… and the safer bet might seem the right bet especially if our hMano was worried about money at the time of the decision.

The odds are that I wouldn’t know these specific circumstances about about our hMano. But because the benefits to me of knowing exactly why hMano chose a physics are low, the costs of wrongly guessing hMano’s reasons for choosing physics are similarly low. In these circumstances, the most reasonable thing to do is to assume I know enough to explain hMano’s decision and move on. When enough people operate this way, it creates a trend noticeable to psychologists.

Now think about your actual CripDyke who in her 20s chose to become an activist rather than an actor (as your actual Crip Dyke actually wanted to do). I know not only that I was strongly interested in justice as a child, for various reasons. I know not only that I was influenced by a particular mentor who connected me to synagogue, and even more importantly to books on Jewish ethics. But I also know that I had a pretty good chance to go to one of the best acting schools in the country. What happened with that opportunity, motivated as I was to study theater? As it turns out, that acting school is a professional school, not a four-year university. Although half their students came to the acting school without college, half attended after getting a college degree, usually in theater. This slightly older, and slightly more mature student body was actually one of the attractions for me, even if not the primary one. With this information in hand, my parents offered to help me pay to go to this special, small, exclusive, and very well regarded acting school if and only if I completed a four-year degree somewhere else first. Intimidated by the cost of education, I chose to accept my parents’ economic help and go to uni.

But that doesn’t mean I preferred activism to acting at the time! No, circumstances other than pure preference helped determine the shape of my career. And if people asked me why I chose activism in my 20s, my answer would have to include a number of circumstances in my life other than mere preference. It had to do with what education I had access to and why, being abused by a romantic parter between the ages of 19 and 21, meeting someone in the feminist community who had studied some of the same Jewish ethicists and ethical principles that I’d read about on my own, and other circumstances besides.

Now having both of these examples, we can finally get an understanding of the FAE, because the FAE describes not merely the error I’m willing to tolerate in articulating the motives of hMano. No, it describes the gap between the error I’m willing to tolerate in articulating the motives of hMano and the error I’m willing to tolerate in articulating the motives of actual me. In practice, because of how our heuristics work, this means that we’re constantly placing more emphasis on inherent qualities of other people when explaining their behavior, and we’re constantly placing more emphasis on environmental circumstances when explaining our own behavior.

This is a very large part of what makes it possible for poor white people to believe that they deserve food stamps and subsidized health care while some poor Black person does not. It’s easy to say that someone else needs to take more responsibility for their own actions, because by operation of the FAE humans will nearly always see them as more responsible for those actions than they see themselves. It also seems like this is not hypocritical, because in our own lives we have all the contextual information we lack about others. We might even be accurately assessing how the job market more than our individual motivation and effort is responsible for our unemployment, but lacking information about the job market for other people with other skills, we cannot assess the environmental impact on their job searches. Unfortunately, instead of assuming the impact is approximately equal to environmental impacts in our own lives, we tend towards assigning zero impact since we don’t have knowledge of that impact.

Crucially, when someone else comes along, perhaps a friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke, and compares the two situations, both the poor white person and the poor Black person are third parties. Your FNCD is equally ignorant of the personal context of each of these persons. The FAE still operates, of course, but being equally ignorant of the idiosyncrasies of each life, your FNCD will minimize environmental factors by approximately the same amount in each case. Your FNCD then announces that the situations of the two people are relatively evenly analogous, at least enough to say we cannot determine that one deserves food stamps more than the other. But this doesn’t mean that your FNCD is a glorious impartial genius. It just means that however much she is affected by the FAE, there is no particular difference in how the FAE affected her judgement between that first (white) applicant for food stamps and that second (Black) applicant.

Okay, so how does this all apply to understanding horizontal hostility, the phenomenon Mano asked about? Well it turns out that as non-genius as your FNCD might be, it actually is unusual to apply the FAE equally in every case. The application of the FAE is limited by circumstances where making a decision about other persons’ motives or qualities might negatively affect self-image. This requires a sympathetic connection between other and self, based on a shared characteristic (or perceived shared characteristic).

Humans will commonly assume on the basis of a shared characteristic that other aspects of their lives and, crucially, their environments were also similar. Perhaps an actor that sees another, unusually skilled actor will assume that they also share a love for the craft and a history of hard work and education in performing arts. But it could be that the other actor doesn’t love the craft, she just loves the audience response. It could also be that the other actor is unusually naturally gifted and had family connections to the industry. Such a person might never have formally studied performing arts. But unless the first actor takes the time to gain this information about the second actor, when attempting to understand the second actor’s motivations, the first actor will likely “fill in” information about the second actor from the first actor’s own personal history.

In situations like this more environmental information is taken into account, and attributions of motivation will be less likely to be based solely on intrinsic personal characteristics, but since the environmental information isn’t necessarily correct, the decision making process isn’t necessarily more likely to accurately attribute motives to the second actor. Instead it will still tend to be incorrect, but it will be incorrect in different ways. Crucially, when a person shares one or a few characteristics with one party, and thus applies a modified version of the FAE, the attributions of motivation and responsibility to that other person are more likely to be sympathetic than without those shared characteristics, save only those cases where the person applying the FAE tends significantly towards judging themselves more harshly than they judge others. Since these cases are a distinct minority of cases, the overwhelming trend of the modified FAE is towards sympathetic judgements.

It is also the case that if someone shares qualities with some third party whose history and environmental factors are known to a person trying to understand the motives and behaviors of that first person, then the decider may “fill in” the history/context of the first person with those factors known from the third party. This can be positive. For instance, if my best friend was born and grew up thousands of miles away in a place I have never visited, and if I therefore don’t know other people from that place, then when I meet someone new and find out that they, too, are from the same place as my best friend I instantly feel more warmth toward that new person. Why? Because in the absence of specific knowledge about that person, I’m filling in with the details of someone else with a shared characteristic that seems salient to me. Since I feel much more warmly toward the person whose history and context I’m borrowing than I do to the average stranger, I feel more warmth towards the new person than I did a moment ago. Unfortunately, it is also the case that we can just as easily borrow history and context from negative examples. Both positive and negative borrowed qualities are equally undeserved, but the impact on the relationship is very different because we can’t know the qualities are undeserved until we have more information, and our heuristic-reliant brains are not waiting for more information to make decisions and assessments.

All of this contributes significantly to the creation and operation of in-group/out-group dynamics, since one possible shared quality is membership in group X (which in turn is typically based on other shared qualities, such as growing up in a specific place or practicing the same religion). But it also contributes to group fracturing. Instead of going into specific group/group conflicts just now, just think that in any large group such as the greater LGBTQIA community there will be a subset of persons with whom a subject shares more qualities than that subject does with the rest of the persons in the larger group. There will also be some subset of persons who shares more qualities with someone the subject views negatively than they do with the subject. In short, there are gonna be a whole lot of spherical cows meandering over the landscape, and individuals will be convinced that they like some of the cows more than others for very, very good reasons. Some of these may even be good reasons, but ultimately with persons unknown, with the most spherical of cows, the FAE will come along and ensure that human brains make bad judgements about others’ motivations and attributes. Worse, the FAE will ensure that on average individuals will err more to the positive for people those individuals perceive to be more like themselves and more to the negative for the rest.

In this pasture, the seeds of horizontal hostility are sown.

ETA: Ack. There was a weird error where this was corrupted when I first tried to post it, and I had to re-edit it. Along the way, something got lost. I’ve added in a phrase near the top when I first describe the FAE making clear that definitionally the FAE is only about assigning motive, responsibility or blame. Nonetheless I do talk about some other tightly related judgements of others because although they aren’t technically part of the FAE, they are part of the dynamic that creates and sustains the FAE.

And, fuck, because if I didn’t have to add this, the post would have ended on a really nice rhetorical note.


  1. John Morales says


    And, fuck, because if I didn’t have to add this, the post would have ended on a really nice rhetorical note.

    Suggestion: instead of adding an addendum to the post, add a link to the addendum itself (in comp sci, called dereferencing) with a label such as ‘Addendum (see comment below)” that links to the comment, which itself contains the addendum. Then you get your end and the transparency — you can almost have your cake and eat it.

    (Obs, it’s the general idea/technique I’m trying to suggest, not the specific method)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *