The DIGNITY Series: Leaving the Reality-Based Community

by Editors

This is the eighth of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)


By Stanley Baran

8. Leaving the Reality-Based Community

Comedian George Carlin famously wondered why we think that anyone who drives slower than we do is an idiot and anyone who drives faster than we do is a maniac. Of course, the answer resides in people’s need to reduce dissonance, avoid elaboration, and find comfort in heuristics. But what if this isn’t enough? What if for some reason we need more evidence to protect ourselves from the realities that surround us? Psychologists offer attribution theory to explain. In its simplest terms, attribution theory posits that humans minimize dissonance and avoid elaboration through attribution error.

Social scientists such as Fritz Heider in the 50s and Harold Kelley in the 60s argued that people, as they encounter various situations and their roles in them, act as “scientists,” trying to figure out the “why” of the behaviors they observe, both their own and others. An internal attribution locates within the person the “why” of an observed behavior; an external attribution places it with the situation. Although all people can and do engage in internal and external attributions, we have a natural tendency to apply external attributions to our own behaviors and internal attributions to the behaviors of others.

Revisit Mr. Carlin’s driving conundrum. You’re in the fast lane, going 5 miles-an-hour over the speed limit. Another driver comes up on your tail and flashes the car’s high-beams. You make an internal attribution for her, “What a maniac! Why do people have to drive so fast?” and an external attribution for yourself, “Besides, I have to be in this lane; there are too many big trucks in the right hand lanes.” Now put yourself in the second car, flashing your high-beams. You make an external attribution for yourself, “I’m late for work; I just gotta get there on time or I’ll be in trouble” and an internal one for the driver in front of you, “What an idiot! Why do people always drive so slow?”

Dignity demands that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we do others, that we take responsibility for our actions just as we assign responsibility to those who act around us. Because we humans “invented” dignity, choosing to monkey with concepts to rise above the instinctive need for mere self-preservation, dignity demands that we see the world through an I-Thou rather than an I-It lens. But for the last decade or so Americans have been encouraged to and rewarded for locating our achievements internally and our failures externally. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, for example, we, led by our political leaders, went external. Despite an August 6 memo delivered to the Oval Office entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US”, Bush officials attributed their failure to anticipate the attacks to Bill Clinton; he hadn’t done enough about al-Qaeda when he was President. The failure to comprehend the seriousness of the threat could not possibly be attributed to their misreading of the memo, claimed Condoleezza Rice. The then-National Security Adviser told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that it was the document’s fault for being merely an “historical memo. . .it was not based on new threat information. . .No one could have imagined them taking a plane. . .using planes as a missile.’” Thusly protected, no official resigned (in fact, several were promoted or given medals). Thusly mollified, the pitchforks remained sheathed; Americans made no demand for resignations. Even after subsequent evidence demonstrated that the memo did indeed offer new al- Qaeda threat information and specifically envisioned just such an attack, Americans returned these same people to office, Mr. Bush becoming the first president to win an absolute majority of the popular vote since his father, George H.W., in 1988.

In the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in which 170 people were killed, in contrast, several highly placed government officials, making internal attributions, did resign. National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan and Home Minister Shivraj Patil admitted that warnings of the assault had been raised but they had not adequately responded to them. Patil wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “owning moral responsibility” for the failure. The Chief Minister for security matters for Maharashtra (the state where Mumbai is located) also stepped down. Vilasrao Deshmukh told an interviewer, “I have accepted moral responsibility for Mumbai terror attacks. In a democracy one has to honour people’s anguish and anger.”

Attribution error is a powerful tool of cognitive self-preservation. Five years after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush was granting his “farewell tour exit interviews” in anticipation of leaving office. On December 1, 2008 on ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Charlie Gibson asked him if going to war in Iraq had been a mistake. Unlike India’s politicians, the Decider decided to attribute blame elsewhere, “A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is (sic) a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t just people in my administration. A lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington, D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. . .I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.” As for the financial meltdown that cost millions of Americans their jobs, homes and savings in the last year of his presidency? He attributed that to his father, the first President Bush, “You know, I was the president during this period of time, but when the history of this period is being written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so before I arrived in president [sic].”

Read Part 9: The Stories We Tell (About) Ourselves (click here)


Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at

Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran