From the Chicago Tribune, on the revocation of George Zimmerman's bail:
"Defendant has intentionally deceived the court with the assistance of his wife," prosecutors said in a motion to revoke Zimmerman's bond. The state relied on recorded jailhouse phone calls, in which they say Zimmerman and his wife discussed the funds "in code to hide what they were doing."
Eric Zorn invited readers to discuss the implications:
To some, this makes it more likely that he also lied to police about the events of the night when he shot and killed Martin.
I put about as much stock in this reasoning as I do the reasoning of those who pluck less than savory details about Martin's past -- his use of marijuana, for instance -- and say this makes it more likely that he was the kind of guy who'd double back, confront and attack a man he thought had profiled him.
The underlying argument is really about dispositional versus situational influences on behavior, and how we assess those influences. Social psychologists have racked up a mountain of evidence showing us that situational factors have far more impact on behavior than once thought. They've also shown that we are prone to a fundamental bias in the way we judge personal agency: we tend to see situational causes behind our own actions and dispositional or character causes behind the actions of others. But I think it's more complicated than that.*
At the least, we can say that we're of two minds about psychic autonomy and personal agency and that we tend, much of the time, to make attributions of agency with little or no awareness of the biases that influence our judgments.
In the Zimmerman case, those who see Zimmerman's dishonesty at the bail hearing as character-driven are more likely to believe that he lied to police about the killing of Martin. Those who lean toward a situational explanation are less likely to make that connection.
I'm reminded of an evaluation I did a while back. I had only a little information about the examinee, but one piece of information I had was quite provocative. I think that most people would react strongly to that information, but reactions would be divided: some would see the provocative information as an indicator of the examinee's good moral character and some would see it as an indication of disturbance and poor moral character. So, not only do we make biased dispositional and situational attributions, but we also tend to assume that our implicit (and sometimes explicit) psychological theories about character are correct. But that ain't necessarily so.
When the case was referred to me, my initial reaction was to judge the examinee negatively, but I'm also highly cognizant of the influence that biases can exert on an assessment. I knew going in that it would be important for my clinical interview to deal with the provocative information, but also important that I not let it define the course of the interview based on confirmation bias. In a provocative case, it's critical that I act neither as prosecutor nor defense attorney. Instead, the aim is to make sure that I have a wide sampling of dots and that I let the dots fall where they may, rather than only noticing the dots that land close to the lines of my prejudices. For a one-off, the use of an array of validated tests helps. And years of theoretical training, supervised work and clinical experience helps--a lot.
My assessment in this case ended up quite differently from what I'd expected and likely far different from what anyone would have proposed at a distance, whether they would have morally prejudged the examinee positively or negatively. Sometimes our prejudices connect the dots correctly, but quite often, they don't.
So back to George and Trayvon. It's clear that many who are sympathetic to George Zimmerman have looked for the character flaws in Trayvon Martin, while emphasizing the situational factors behind George Zimmerman's behavior on the night of the shooting. On the other hand, many who are least sympathetic to George Zimmerman have emphasized what they see as evidence of his bad character, while seeing only situational influences in Trayvon Martin's behavior. The abundance of folk psychoanalysis only adds to the sloppy stew of opinions.
So I wonder, do we have enough dots in the Zimmerman case, do we have a sufficiently representatives sampling of dots, and are the theories we're applying to connect the dots as sound as we believe them to be?
*An aside: I wonder if the tendency among conservatives is to emphasize disposition, while liberals emphasize situational influences. Scratch that. It isn't difficult at all to think of many exceptions to that observation. Perhaps it has more to do with group identity and who plays the role of the "Other" in our minds. Perhaps dispositional influences are attributed to the Other, while situational influences are more likely attributed to those with whom we feel aligned. That would make more sense of how the differences in attributions tend to shake out in the Zimmerman-Martin case. I emphasize the word tend.
So, in our political and social judgments, are we more likely to see flawed character in our opponents and competitors, while being more likely to justify the actions of those we support by discussing the situations or contexts that influenced their actions?
Orrrrrr... do we attribute to disposition, the good acts of those with whom we sympathize or identify, while their bad acts are attributed to situations? Conversely, does the Other bear the character attributions when explaining bad acts, while good acts are deemed mere situational effects?