Jonah Lehrer, the Writing Industry, and the Reversal of the Fundamental Attribution Error

Whenever a successful writer gets busted for “cheating,” the narrative always involves the collective wondering of why they would take such a risk. We saw this with the downfall of Jayson Blair and Johann Hari, and most recently with Jonah Lehrer. For example, Erik Kain called Lehrer’s actions “strange and baffling.” Curtis Brainard at CJR straight-up asks what’s on everybody’s mind:

Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?

What’s interesting is that this question takes a noble view of the offender. The implication is always that the person got to the top on their merits, and then drastically changed their behavior due to situational pressures. People rarely consider that the offender might have risen to the top because they’re predisposed to bending rules or inhabiting the gray areas in an advantageous way. I don’t bring this up specifically with regard to Lehrer — for all I know his recent transgressions were the first impure things he’s ever done — nor am I implying that the people who’ve been caught red handed only reached their apex because of cheating. However, writing tends to be a winner-take-all market full of talented people, and I have no doubt that for every writer who rockets to the top there are a handful of writers nearly as talented left to toil away in the corners of the interent. It certainly seems plausible that bending the rules here or there could make a big difference. Why assume that everything the offenders accomplished up until their downfall was based purely on virtuous actions?

Furthermore, research on the fundamental attribution error (FAE) predicts that people would not attribute the mistakes of somebody like Lehrer to situational pressures. The FAE describes the tendency to believe that a person’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation. For example, when people read an essay advocating a pro-Castro position, whether or not the writer was required to advocate for that position makes little difference when people are asked to rate how pro-Castro they think the writer is. Situational factors tend to be ignored, and that means when somebody cheats, we tend to assume that they have always been, and forever will be, a cheater.

Why then do writers tend to give Lehrer the benefit of the doubt by focusing the pressures of his situation? One explanation is that people are more likely to overcome the FAE when their judgments of a person’s motivations can influence their own outcomes. For example, psychologist Roos Vonk conducted a study in which participants engaged in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with one other opponent. However, before the game they read an essay that advocated for more selfish or more cooperative behavior. Some participants were told the essay was written by their future opponent while some were not. Finally, some were told the writer had no choice in the essay topic, while some were told the writer freely chose to advocate their position.

As expected, for participants who were reading the essay of a random person, whether or not the person chose their topic had little effect on how the the participant rated the writer’s selfish or cooperative attitudes. However, when participants were reading the essay of their opponent, and thus their judgements could affect their own outcomes in the prisoner’s dilemma game, participants judged attitudes expressed in the no-choice essays to be weaker than when the writer had a choice. In other words, they were less susceptible to the fundamental attribution error and correctly accounted for situational factors.

While most writers aren’t literally engaged in a game that makes their outcome “dependent” on the personality characteristics of writers who break the rules, I think it’s fair to say that because of the nature of the industry most writers do have a personal interest in understanding why writers fabricate, how they should be judged, and what the consequences should be. Thus writers may be more likely to overcome the FAE and take situational factors into account when judging the misdeeds of other writers.

This explanation also dovetails nicely with more-superficial reasons for giving cheating writers the benefit of the doubt. Neither aspiring writers nor those who are already successful want to believe that making it as a successful writer requires unsavory practices. The former group doesn’t want to feel pressure to break their moral code, while the latter group wants to see themselves and their colleagues in the most favorable light.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning Seth Mnookin’s recent post highlighting previously unknown errors made by Lehrer. Mnookin concludes by essentially saying that Lehrer is a cheater, and has always been a cheater.

This is not the work of someone who lost his way; it’s the work of someone who didn’t have a compass to begin with.

My point in this post is that it’s odd we don’t think more negatively about rule-breaking writers when there is a lack of evidence about their past actions, so I don’t think Mnookin’s revelations are all that relevant here. However, perhaps they provide one piece of evidence for the idea that when it comes to writers commenting on other writers who fabricate, there is a reversal in the direction of the FAE. Not only do they overcome the bias towards attributing actions to internal factors, they are actually biased in over-attributing actions to situational factors.
Vonk, R. (1999). Effects of Outcome Dependency on Correspondence Bias Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167299025003009

Jones, E.E. & Harris, V.A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0


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