An Important Mental Mistake You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

I just returned from a nice short visit to Duke University, where I met many faculty from their Center for Child and Family Policy. Over breakfast with the distinguished psychologist Kenneth Dodge, I had a great conversation about a common but critical mental mistake you may never have heard of, but which has important implications.

Suppose you are a 17-year-old kid walking down the hallway of a large Chicago high school. Another boy bumps into you. Was he playin’ with you? Was he just distracted by a text he received from his girlfriend? You’re a 50-year-old middle-manager in a meeting with colleagues. Someone notes an embarrassing editing error in a memo you just wrote. Was she trying to show you up in front of the boss? Was she just trying to fix some glitch, or what? You’re an 18-year-old single mom, and your three-year-old is up crying once again at 2am. Is he waking you (again) because he’s angry that you didn’t let him have dessert, or does he simply have a stomach ache?

You can understand why actual human beings could reach different conclusions in each situation. In part, this is a matter of probabilities and costs. If someone bumped into me at the University of Chicago, I wouldn’t think anything of it. There’s no real cost in believing otherwise. Life moves on. If you’re a student one mile from my office at a tough school, that minor hallway collision isn’t always so accidental…. The consequences of being publicly punked can be very real. But so are the consequences of over-reacting on a hair-trigger to perceived slights. You can’t survive in bureaucratic America without paying attention to who your allies and enemies really are. Some strategic slights should be duly noted. Yet outside a few departments of our hospital, you won’t get far if you interpret every correction or disagreement as a hostile act. Three-year-olds sometimes intentionally push boundaries and misbehave…. Well you get the idea.

Dodge and others have explored ways that individuals vary in their responses to such ambiguous signals and situations. One striking finding has obvious implications for youth violence prevention. Aggression-prone youth are systematically more likely to interpret others’ ambiguous behaviors as more hostile than these really are.

Hostile intention attribution bias is obviously dangerous when two frightened and pumped 17-year-olds exchange words. It is equally dangerous, though the consequences play out more slowly, when youth interact with teachers or other authority figures. My friend Tony DiVittorio of Youth Guidance tells a story about what happens when a student arrives late to class (again). The teacher gets in the student’s face and sends him to detention. The kid concludes that the teacher hates him. He curses her out, storms out of the classroom, punches a locker, and makes her perceived hostility into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had this student interpreted his teacher’s unspoken attitudes and intentions differently, he might have acted differently, and thus obtained a different result.

Several cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)-based therapies seek to address hostile intent attribution bias among aggressive youth. The Becoming a Man (BAM) Sports Edition intervention I’ve helped to evaluate is one such effort.

The same biases appear within the arena of child abuse. Suppose you are a frustrated young parent. Your infant cries in the middle of the night. You remove his diaper—and he pees all over you. How do you interpret what just happened?

A classic finding is that parents who interpret such behavior as intentional disobedience are more likely to abuse their children. They are also more likely to employ harsh parenting styles which create other kinds of risks for their children and, eventually, for others. This is tragic, but it also provides a reason for hope, because it points to a specific avenue of intervention.

Relatively short interventions, conducted during home visits by nurses or by others, can teach young parents important facts about infant development. By providing parents with helpful problem-solving strategies, helping to “story-edit” parents’ visceral responses to frustrating dilemmas, these interventions appear quite promising in reducing child abuse.

Lest you think attribution restructuring is only important for at-risk parents who fit some negative stereotype, let me conclude with a simple story about caretaking for someone with a challenging disability.

When my intellectually-disabled brother-in-law Vincent moved into our home, he displayed a number of behaviors that I sought to control. He displayed one such behavior his entire life. When he becomes nervous or angry, he sometimes bites the base of his hand in a way I found quite disturbing. I reacted badly to this upsetting behavior. I would sometimes double-down on whatever I was doing that was upsetting him, under the assumption he was being defiant.

Once he was accurately diagnosed with fragile X syndrome, I learned that he wasn’t being defiant. Hand-biting is actually a characteristic behavior associated with the disorder. The best response was the opposite of what I was doing. I needed to back off, and to give Vincent a chance to regroup himself. This simple knowledge of the disorder made me less angry. Maybe because it gave me permission to stop trying to change a deeply-rooted behavior, it made it easier for me to respond more humanely and effectively.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.