Our tangential discussion of the fundamental attribution error led me to do some reading about attribution theory in general. The hypothesis that resonated most with me is that of a self-serving attribution bias. Self-serving attribution bias explains why an observer might attribute another's actions to their fundamental qualities--but only in those cases in which that attribution reflects well on the observer. In cases where attributing another's actions to their fundamental qualities will reflect poorly on the observer, the observer will instead attribute those actions to the external situation. Unlike the fundamental attribution error, self-serving attribution bias also explains how actors interpret their own actions--resultant alternatively from intrinsic or extrinsic factors, depending on what best supports their self-esteem. Self-serving attribution bias might lead an observer to interpret another student's D on a test as the result of their stupidity, another student's A to the easiness of the test, their own A to their intelligence, and their own D to the difficulty of the test.
This tendency to attribute others' misfortunes to their intrinsic failures relates to the widespread social problem that is victim blaming. Observers will "blame" the victims of such diverse wrongful acts as poverty or mental illness, etc. by attributing these ills to intrinsic qualities (laziness, unwholesomeness, etc.) rather than taking into account the many potential extrinsic causes: institutionalized cyclical poverty, lack of mental health care, etc.
The term "victim blaming" was first used to describe white America's tendency to justify the sorry position of blacks in America, but in recent years it has been used most often to describe the tendency to blame victims of rape and sexual assault. Often when a woman is raped, observers will attribute her rape to her intrinsic characteristics--her loose sexual morals, her risk-taking, her familiarity with men, her inebriation, her provocativeness, etc.--rather than pointing to the main extrinsic, situational cause common to all rapes: the presence of a rapist.
The face of victim blaming has changed significantly throughout history. The once common practice of cross-examining survivors of rape about their past sexual behavior--so as to prove that their promiscuity was the real cause of their rape--has been almost entirely wiped out in the United...