By Katherine Duke '05
A certain current Amherst student—let’s give her the pseudonym “Cassie”—and her friend made a decoration for Family Weekend this year: a pumpkin with an A carved in it. “We put a strobe light in it,” Cassie says. “I was so proud of it. All my friends said it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen.”
They placed the pumpkin outside of Morris Pratt Dorm, and a few weeks later, over Homecoming, it met its doom. Cassie blames another friend, a member of the football team, for smashing it. “He is known for smashing things,” she says. Last year he got in trouble for throwing dorm furniture and apples, she claims. Plus, the football team was upset about having lost to Williams. And this guy lives in Morris Pratt, and “one of his friends did rat him out.” Cassie’s friend, she says, denies her charge.
This would seem a fairly straightforward whodunit. But, as she and I and the 20 or so other students are learning in the Interterm course “Figuring Out Who to Blame,” pointing a finger is a complicated process with layers of fascinating psychology behind it. “How do we explain others’ actions?” asked instructor Piercarlo Valdesolo ’03, the Robert E. Keiter ’57 Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology. “Every action, every event, there’s some degree of ambiguity. You can’t really know what happened in any given situation.”
To fill in the blanks, Valdesolo has explained, people rely on preexisting knowledge and ideas (which psychologists call schemas). In making a causal attribution—that is, deciding that her friend must have smashed the pumpkin—Cassie was using what she knew of his personality, his past behavior and what kinds of things have happened during past Homecomings. She was inferring what his mood might have been after a losing game. She was also drawing upon stereotypes about football players being rowdy and violent—and though stereotypes are an inevitable part of the human thought process and can be helpful in problem-solving, they don’t always hold true. Even the testimony of the friend who snitched on him might well be false or flawed: people often have motivation to lie, and even when trying to tell the truth, we suffer distortions of memory.
In the class, we’re studying these and other complexities of the blame game. We’ve watched The Thin Blue Line, the 1988 documentary by Errol Morris about a man serving a life sentence after he was falsely accused and convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas. We’ve discussed the 1999 case in which New York City police, thinking that West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was reaching for a gun, opened fire, killing him; he was actually reaching for his wallet. We’ve discussed the McMartin trial, in which an allegation of sexual abuse at a preschool in California spiraled into a witch hunt. Clearly, the psychological processes behind causal attribution can have major legal ramifications—even life-or-death consequences.
More fun are the stories, such as Cassie’s, that students bring in from their real lives. “Emma,” while in high school, was called down to the police department on suspicion of burglarizing her town, just because a neighbor saw Emma’s friends trespassing on his lawn and assumed, and later misremembered, that Emma must have been there too (she was actually out-of-state at the time). “Margo” had a distinct recollection, from when she was 5, of lying to her mother, saying that Peter Pan had flown in her window and cleaned her bedroom. Years later, her mother helped her realize that no such conversation had ever happened—Margo had fabricated not only the story about Peter Pan, but the entire memory of telling that story. “Kurt” told of the time a high school friend asked him to hide cases of empty beer cans from a party, and Kurt spent the whole day strategically concealing the cans all around his house. When his mother came home, the yelling began immediately. He couldn’t imagine how she could have figured out his scheme. “Then I come out to the kitchen,” Kurt said, “and the cases that the beer came in were sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, where I had left them.” This, says Valdesolo, is a classic example of inattentional blindness: being so focused on certain details that we completely miss what should be really obvious.
Valdesolo contributed a story from his own time at Amherst: A student who lived on his hall once called the dean and accused Valdesolo of assault for slamming a door in her face. Our instructor took 20 minutes and even drew a map on the chalkboard to convince us that he did nothing wrong—that the whole thing was a misunderstanding based on unfortunate timing; that it was Valdesolo’s friend who slammed the door, not even knowing that anyone was behind it; and that the dean was right to eventually drop the charges based on testimony from professors and coaches about Valdesolo’s character and record. But, Valdesolo pointed out to us, “I could be lying, for all you know.”