The fundamental attribution error or why patients get blamed for their problems
One of the things I notice working in acute mental health services is the tendency some teams have for blaming patients for their problems. This usually takes three forms. Firstly patients are said to have a “personality disorder” – a bit like having blue eyes it can’t be changed. Secondly that their substance abuse stops them being treated and lastly that they don’t turn up to appointments. Therefore the patients are really to blame for not getting better. However this view of patients is based on a well recognised fallacy in reasoning called the fundamental attribution error. This is based on experimental studies that have repeatedly demonstrated that as humans we attribute much more weight to “personality” factors that to environmental factors in explaining people’s behaviour. In fact the main determinant of people’s behaviour seems to be external environmental factors rather than “personality”.
The classic experiment that demonstrated this was described in 1967 by Jones and Harris. Subjects listened to pro- and anti-Fidel Castro speeches (it just had to be the
A further demonstration of the impact of environment on people’s behaviour (as opposed to personality) is shown by Philip Zimbardo’s classic experiments in August 1971 looking at the behaviour of “normal college students” put in to the roles of guards and prisoners. Some guards turned into sadists, despite knowing that the “prisoners” had done nothing wrong and the experiment had to be stopped after six days. "Many of the normal, healthy mock prisoners suffered such intense emotional stress reactions that they had to be released in a matter of days; most of the other prisoners acted like zombies totally obeying the demeaning orders of the guards; the distress of the prisoners was caused by their sense of powerlessness induced by the guards who began acting in cruel, dehumanizing and even sadistic ways. The study was terminated prematurely because it was getting out of control in the extent of degrading actions being perpetrated by the guards against the prisoners - all of whom had been normal, healthy, ordinary young college students less than a week before." (Zimbardo has just written a book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil” which makes links between this phenomena and such abuses as the torture that occurred in Abu Ghraib).
So in clinical practice I've become wary of blaming the patient for their problems – their behaviour is far more likely to be due to their environment than their “personality”. But of course understanding their environment requires time and interest to enquire about. Something that may be lacking in acute clinical practice.
Jones, E. E. & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3, 1–24
Zimbardo P. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. Random House. 2007 ISBN-10: 1400064112