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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Katrina's fundamental problem

When I first wrote about Katrina evacuees being investigated for fraud and prosecuted for looting, I didn't realize what a recurring theme this was.

This week in the news it's charging doctors and nurses with second-degree murder for allegedly euthanizing patients during the hurricane's aftermath. God knows that motive the state is going to supply. I'm sure the hospital staff was just itching to off some annoying codgers — what an opportunity!

Next week we'll probably be tracking down people to pay their share of the Superdome damage bill. Why does there seem to be so much attention paid to the transgressions of the storm victims and so little to how the government at all levels failed the people of the Gulf Coast?

One reason involves of one of my favorite psychological concepts, the "fundamental attribution error." Cribbing from Wikipedia:
1. When I do well it is because I am talented and good. When I do poorly it is not my fault, it is because of the circumstances.

2. When you do well it is because you are lucky or had an unfair advantage. When you do poorly it is because you are bad, unskilled, untalented, of poor character, etc.
To put it another way, we tend to discount external factors when explaining both our own successes and others' failures. I got in that accident because the other car came out of nowhere; you got in that accident because you're a bad driver. The reason it's fundamental is because everyone does it all the time. The reason it's an error is because we are usually wrong.

If you accept the fundamental attribution error, it sure helps explain the world. Then it's human nature to assume people are poor because they're lazy, do drugs because they are weak and fail in school because they're dumb.

Why did those evacuees spend all that money on porn? Because they are con artists and criminals!
Why did those savages loot that store? Because they are bad people!
Why did those doctors kill those people? Because they enjoy "playing God"!

I think the Personal Accounts section at says it all. These are e-mails that were widely forwarded in the days after Katrina. They are purportedly first-hand accounts of what horrible, lazy, dirty people these New Orleans evacuees are.
As they get off the bus, they are greeted and shown to the restrooms — where they pee all over the walls, floors, mirrors, etc. They did not even flush the toilets.

Left the restrooms in a HORRIBLE mess.


Why are all these fat blacks laying around on cots sleeping while white people are lining up by the thousands to SERVE THEM MEALS???

I am sorry but it's starting to piss me off that we're expected to serve these lazy assed "evacuees" indefinitely. Why the hell can't they line up themselves and help unload all these trucks and cars full of FREE stuff?


Upon their arrival here in Salt Lake City, two people immediately deplaned and lit up a joint. During the course of medical evaluations, it was discovered that parents were using their kids to carry loads of looted jewelry (price tag still on), and other items. One third of the people who got off the plane were angry that they didn't get to go to Houston or San Antonio. Over the course of the next 36 hours we received an additional 430 evacuees. Most of these, like their predecessors had to be relieved of illegal items. Additionally, most of them, were the owners of exceptionally prolific criminal records, just like those in the first flight.
The worst part is that lots of people believe these when they arrive in their Inbox and forward them on to everyone they know. It's not hard to find plenty of this on the Web.

A lot of it is simple racism. But it also fits nicely with our fundamental assumption of the worst in people. Deep down, we all want to believe that the people who had to be rescued were just too stupid and lazy to evacuate. So let's make up some stories that confirm our assumptions about what bad people they are! Whew, I feel better already.

One way to be mindful of the fundamental attribution error is to do what I asked in the first two posts — put yourself in their places. From everything I've read, the conditions at the hospital were horrendous, and I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those few doctors who stayed. Do you think there were any training sessions that covered what to do in this kind of situation? The very fabric of society collapsed around them and left hospital staff with hundreds of painful decisions to make. Maybe they made the wrong ones, but doesn't our government bear some culpability for putting them in that situation? The least we can do is have a sober discussion of what happened, rather than charging them with murder.

I'm not arguing that extenuating circumstances give people license to do whatever the hell they want. While factors can mitigate, we're all ultimately responsible for our decisions. But this was the worst fucking natural disaster in United States history. Not to mention the most utter balls-out screw-up of a disaster response you could imagine. Just once, how about we attribute these incidents to the circumstances (literally, an act of God), and not to people's innate character.

What would you have done?


Blogger Chance-86 said...

This is a tough one for me to deal with. I totally agree with your insight on the fundamental attribution error. However, I have equal contempt for those who excuse their actions based on similar principles.
I know that personal analogies are a far cry from factual, measurable evidence, but at the same time there is often truth in observation.
Our society has become a total 'give-me' society. For years (over 6) the federal governemtnt was sending allocated funds to New Orleans. These monies were ear-marked for rebuilding the aging leavees. The local government of New Orleans chose, rather, to use this funding for its ever-growing social welfare programs. It is no secret that the percentage of welfare recipients in New Orleans was disproportionately large. Let me tell you something about the psychology of a person who is given hand-outs their entire lives: they come to expect it, demand it, and are outraged at the idea of not getting more of what they 'deserve.' Now, please don't crucify me for a blanket statement like that. I am not proposing that all people on Welfare are users and abusers of the system, but the fact is that the welfare system in this country is not designed to help people get out of short-term problems while they work on getting jobs; Our system is set up to perpetuate the recipient, indefinitely. I work (and have worked for many years) in a healthcare setting that provides services to both privately and publically insured patients. After years of experience, I can tell you one universal truth: 90% of complaints come from those receiving free healthcare, as do 90% of our lawsuits. Those receving free healthcare fail to show up for their appointment 36% of the time, and are late 28% of the time. Yet, if they are asked to wait, they are the first to complain and demand some sort of compensation...they get the healthcare for free but want to be compensated for the time it takes to be seen.... Working people with private insurance have much less problem with unexpected delays and problems than do the unemployed people who are in a hurry to get... where? Down to the local grocery to buy steak with their food stamps?
My point is not bitterness. My point is that we have spent the last several decades "handing a man a fish, instead of teaching him how to fish for himself." We hand people everything they need in life, and all they do is demand more. Then, we are outraged when they act in a way that demonstrates everything that we, as a society, have been teaching them. The 'looters' were simply acting on their education: "I deserve to be taken care of, and I deserve more than I am currently getting." So, there sits a new TV that "I deserve" more than the the "rich" guy who owns the store. After all it's probably HIS fault that I'm on welfare to begin with.
The attitude is etrocious. So, while not denying the truth of the attribution error, I would be very careful not to excuse this sort of behaviour.

Blogger Mandasaurus said...

Chance, if you could please refer me to statistics that cite the "disproportionate" number of people who receive (before Katrina, after, whatever) public aid in New Orleans, that'd be helpful.

It's not sensible to me to blame the people of New Orleans, or anyplace, for having a sense of entitlement for basic human needs. Whether I'm poor or rich I deserve good healthcare and I'll complain about poor care whether I'm on my HMO, paying cash or getting the government to pay.

In America - a place with plentiful riches, resources and blessings I think we ought to expect decency.

Let me tell YOU something, Chance, when you decide that you're an expert on attitudes, psychology and mindsets of people who you don't know - you're prepetuating stereotypes and misunderstanding.

The behavior that I cannot excuse is that the of U.S. government who ignored the plight of New Orleans (sending money that isn't used is a pathetic sign of bureaucracy gone to shit), and reacted slowly and poorly to the disaster.

I hesitate to blame uneducated people without resources and assistance when I see the government act so very foolishly.

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