To Fight Poverty, Fight the Ultimate Attribution Error

Republicans in Congress forced the expiration of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans this weekend — an unprecedented move when long-term unemployment rates are this high. How could they be so cruel?

Fighting poverty isn’t just a matter of making people care about the less fortunate — it’s about branding poverty to counteract the ultimate attribution error and, indeed, making the role of fortune central to their understanding.

The ultimate attribution error sounds like the most powerful weapon in the war on correct attribution, but it’s actually a social psychology concept that deals with how we mentally account for other people’s successes or failures. When you combine the ultimate attribution error with the fundamental attribution error and actor-observer bias, people usually account for success and failure more or less like this:

  Successful Outcome Unsuccessful Outcome
Happened to me I rule I was unlucky
Happened to someone else They were lucky They suck

To illustrate with a simple example, if you trip over a crack in the sidewalk, you’ll probably say to yourself, “tough luck,” or, “Someone should do a better job maintaining the sidewalks around here.” If you see someone else trip on a crack, you’ll probably say to yourself, “S/he is just clumsy.”

The other side of that coin — and where it becomes especially relevant for how people view poverty — is when something good happens to you, you’re more likely to assume it’s because of your own virtue or talent. And that leads to the inference that if good things aren’t happening to others, they must not have those good qualities.

Coach is so virtuous and disciplined that he succeeded even though no one
helped him out … unless you want to count the taxpayers.

If you’re conservative, that’s probably where you stop. According to my former mentor at the Rockridge Institute, George Lakoff, the conservative worldview that values discipline, self control, skill, and meritocratic hierarchies usually takes a person’s success as an ipso facto sign of that person’s possession of those virtues.* That means poverty is a sign, ipso facto, of a person’s moral failings. Social insurance programs, as money that doesn’t reward you for work, are immoral because they discourage the development of skill and the exercise of discipline.

The reality is that conflating evidence of success (wealth) with evidence of virtues (like a good work ethic) is deeply problematic:

And according to the General Social Survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans wouldn’t quit their jobs even if a financial windfall enabled them to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Those with the least education, the lowest incomes and the least prestigious jobs were actually most likely to say they would keep working, while elites were more likely to say they would take the money and run.

Yet if Democrats and liberals who favor anti-poverty programs want to build support for their position, arguing over whether lazy, unskilled poor people should get free handouts is a good way to lose the game before they even start playing.

Instead, liberals must de-couple poverty from the ultimate attribution error by specifically identifying the role of luck and circumstance in the lives of poor people. Here’s how Democratic senator Cory Booker described the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in a campaign email earlier this year (which I helped create through my work at Trilogy Interactive):

But a few out-of-touch members of the House of Representatives are trying to place barriers blocking access to [food stamps] for millions of Americans who continue to fight to get back on their feet after the worst economic downturn in generations.

See how it worked there? The people who need food stamps aren’t the lazy people from conservative mythology, what one author called “the welfare career, and its crowned head, the welfare queen.” Instead, these are hard-working people who “continue to fight to get back on their feet.”

Marlboro Man
I don’t know how to use those rope thingies, but other people who buy Marlboros might. Light me up!

And they’re not off their feet now as a result of a refusal to develop skills; they’re off their feet because of circumstance — we just suffered “the worst economic downturn in generations.”

Branding poverty is just like branding any consumer good: the public wants to know who already fits the product. If I had to guess, at least 95% of Marlboro smokers have never roped a steer or baled hay. But many people are evidently more likely to buy a pack of Marlboros if they think the other people who buy Marlboros are badass cowboys. Likewise, people are more likely to support anti-poverty programs if they think the participants are hard-working people like them who just happen to be afflicted by circumstance.

In that spirit of establishing poverty’s brand by establishing its membership, consider using and avoiding these words to characterize people who might benefit from anti-poverty programs when making your anti-poverty case:

Use Avoid
Less fortunate
Down on their luck
Welfare queen (duh)

* I sometimes hear people bemoan the low-income conservative who opposes higher taxes on the rich because he believes he will someday be rich himself. There may be some who fall into this trap, but many more people likely see wealth as a sign of virtue and see taxation as punishment — why punish the virtuous? Phrases such as ‘tax relief‘ reinforce this view of taxation as a burden rather than a patriotic duty and the way we support our neighbors.