Cognitive Body Mod
Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 23:08:45 -0400
The Possible Cognitive Basis of Self-Presentation Through
Intentional Body Modifications
The Fundamental Attribution Error or Bias
The study of cognitive psychology has revealed a phenomena known
as the "fundamental attribution bias (Ross, 1977; Jones, 1979)
also referred to as the "norm of internality" (Jellison and
Green, 1981). It appears that when people observe the behavior
of other people there is a "general tendency to overestimate the
importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to
environmental influences" (Ross, 1977:184).
In essence it appears that people may have the capacity, and
at times the tendency to ignore situational or environmental
factors in favor of attributed characteristics in determining the
cause of an observed actor's behavior. An example often cited
involves people observing an individual giving a speech
advocating on particular point of view. Even though the members
of the audience know (at least are informed) that the speaker's
behavior is constrained such as in being assigned by an
instructor a point of view to take in a debate, the observers
will still evaluate the speaker's expressed point of view as
There are different ways of overestimating the importance of
dispositional factors in evaluating behavior. People can
attribute the cause of the behavior they witness to personality
characteristics (agressiveness, shyness, extroversion, etc...) of
the actor; people can attribute the cause to attitudes (values,
beliefs, etc...), or people can "recruit" (cognitive psychology
talk for what is salient or used as informative) categories into
which the actor fits and infer characteristics associated with
the definition of the category (what characteristics delineate
the people who are in the category and differentiate them from
those not in the category).
Taking an evolutionary psychological perspective on these
tendencies it is easy to see how the capacity to evaluate likely
behavior through the attribution of inherent characteristics
would be useful. After all it would be better to consider a
large carnivore as having inherent characteristics (such as
aggressiveness) that are better avoided rather than sticking
around to see what the situation is such as if it is hungry.
There is another side to this. What about the tendency to
attribute dispositional factors versus situational or
environmental factors to one's own behavior? There appear to be
biases depending on what is called "self-presentation."
Individuals are perceived more positively, i.e. are rewarded, for
presenting the causes of their behavior as internal. But greater
social dissapproval is experienced for negative actions assumed
to result from internal versus external causes. Some research
shows that, though the norm is internality, when people are
instructed to seek dissapproval they respond by externalizing
causation for their behavior (Jellison and Green, 1981).
There is, however, a dissagreement about the above. Some
argue that the default in attributing causality to one's self is
to overemphasize the situational factors (what is going on
"outside") because they are what is "salient" in perception
(Jones and Nisbett, 1971), while what is going on "inside" is
We must keep in mind, however, that the concept
"personality" is just a reification of dispositions - personality
as a thing in the head that has certain characteristics and
result in particular patterns of behavior.
There is another cognitive phenomena relevant to this
discussion, that of "counterfactuals." Mental mutations occur
when people mentally undo, or mutate, an event or create a
scenario that is counter to what actually happens. This is also
known as producing counterfactuals, in essence, mental
simulations or stories that construct alternatives to pre-
conceived expectations or actually experienced outcomes. For
example: "According to counterfactual thinking theorists, one way
in which people might approach the problem of assigning fault for
accidents is to mentally undo or mutate the accident so that the
outcome is avoided (Weiner and Pritchard, 1994:118)"
It is easy to see how the creation of counterfactuals can
lead to differences in ascribing blame or responsibility for a
negative event or an accident. In the case of medical
malpractice involving a surgical procedure, for example, it is
much easier to imagine the doctor changing behavior than it is
the patient who is under anesthesia and unconcious. In another
case, however, where a worker ignores recognized safety
regulations leading to injury it is easier to mentally mutate the
causal chain that led to the accident by imagining that the
worker acted differently.
There is one caveat to all of this. Most of this research
has been conducted in America on Americans and there are serious
questions concerning whether these findings would be applicable
to people cross-culturally. Some research has been conducted
cross-culturally with varying results, but these will be
discussed later. First, some consequences for American culture.
Just to Give Accessible Examples: Blaming the Victim, Venerating
the Hero, Propitiating the Ghost in the Machine
We know of the consequences of the fundamental attribution
bias as "blaming the victim," "venerating the hero" and
attributing "agency" to inanimate objects when they misbehave.
Most social scientists are aware of the concept of "blaming the
victim." A common example is the woman who is raped "because'
she was in the wrong place or wearing "provacative" clothing or
in some other way, "brought it on herself." There are studies
showing that the way a story is told or presented can influence
the receiver's perceptions of causality through their selection
of salient factors in mentally mutating the event to provide
alternative outcomes, i.e. how to prevent the rape. Apparantly
subjects can be induced to judge a rape victim to be more
responsible and blameworthy if they are asked to imagine, or
create a counterfactual story about how she might have avoided
the rape (Branscombe and Coleman, 1991).
Why is it so easy to blame the victim? In attributions of
causation it is the actor that is salient, or providing
informative input, when people are asked to create alternative
outcomes. In the case of rape the rapist fades into the
background, the environment, and becomes something kin to a
force. Added to this is the tendency toward "dispositional
attributions" such that rapist is seen as beyond control, again
like a force (or driven by forces) such that the only way to
mentally mutate the rape event is to create an alternative for
the perceived "actor" in the case, the woman who walks across a
parking lot at night or open the door to a stranger (or an
An aside: it should not be a surprise given the above that
defense lawyers are reluctant to put their clients on the stand.
As long as they are perceived as background it is harder to
create alternatives and thus assign causality. The OJ trial
thing was a good example of the creation of a "reasonable"
counterfactual courtesy of Furman such that the actual physical
evidence need not be considered if it all could have been
The above goes along with the perception the defense lawyers
"get people off" which totally ignores the situation wherein the
judge determines what is admissable in the courtroom (and thus
what the defense can or cannot present), the decision of the jury
and their deliberations (often on the specific instructions of,
again, the judge).
This works in other ways too. Consider the view that health
problems are the result of behavior such as diet, lack of
exercise, etc... These attributions are the result of
counterfactual thinking about why people die. The only actor in a
"natural" death is the dead person. If they die "naturally"
before they are normatively supposed to, their death violates a
norm and is thus "counterfactually" constructed to create
alternatives, if only...
Conversely, the hero is one whose achievements are
attributed to dispositions often to the exclusion of the
situational factors. General's "win" battles, politicians and
monarchs "lead" countries, prophets and messiahs "guide" their
followers through the wilderness. Much of the credit for these
perceptions is the result of the successful elicitation of
dispositional attributions in followers and the recorders of
Equally interesting is the tendency of people to attribute
dispositions to inanimate objects. Observing the behavior of
people exhibiting their initial responses to a recalcitrant
machine can observe this phenomena. Uncooperative machines can
be "stupid" (which they are, but they do not need to be told), of
questionable lineage (as if they cared), subject to appeals to
their better, more cooperative, natures. Well enough of this.
Just an example of how far the fundamental attribution bias can
In "Norm Theory: Comparing Reality to its Alternatives," Daniel
Kahneman and Dale T. Miller (1986) make a good case, at least
within cognitive psychological research, for norms as available
"The present model assumes that a number of representations can
be recruited in paralell, by either a stimulus event or an
abstract probe such as a category nam, and that a norm is
produced by aggregating the set of recruited representations."
(Kahneman and Miller, 1986: 136)
"Exemplar models assume that several representations are evoked
at once and that activation varies in degree. They do not
require the representations of exemplars to be accessible to
concious and explicit retrieval, and they allow representations
to be fragmentary. The present model of norms adopts all these
assumptions. In addition, we propose that events are sometimes
compared to counterfactual alternatives that are constructed ad
hoc rather than from retrieved past experience." (Kahneman and
Miller, 1986: 136)
They go on to say that there are two types of norms that are
1. stimulus norms, which are evoked by experiences of objects
and events, and
2. category norms, which are evoked by references to categories.
and there are two modes of recruitment:
1. retrieval of memory representations of individual objects and
events or of subordinate categories, and
2. construction of counterfactual alternatives to experience.
An Aside: Categories may be an inevitable consequence of
language, naming, and nouns according to Ellen Markman
(Categorization and Naming in Children, ????).
The Creation of an Identity
The creation of an identity is the successful elicitation of
dispositional attributions from other people. The creation of an
identity necessitates the violation of norms.
As Kahneman and Miller point out: "Causal questions about
particular events are generally raised only when these events are
abnormal. The close connection between causal reasoning and
norms is evident in the rules that govern the homely why question
as it is used in conversations about particular events (Lehnert,
1978). The why question implies that a norm has been violated.
(Kahnaman and Miller, 1986:148)."
What norm has been violated?
The normal physical presentation of a human body.
You say: What about bodily "enhancements" such as face lifts,
etc.. Well what about them. Are they not attempts to violate
the norms of say an aged face? Other bodily enhancements? The
same. The goal is to initiate dispositional atributions in
others who notice, and they notice because such enhancements are
deviations from normal exemplars which we build up through
experiencing a variety of "real" unenhanced people.
Why did you get that tatoo?
Want to see mine?
Why did you get that nose ring?
Strict avoidance of people with nose rings
Exchange of stories between people with nose rings
My, you look good for your age!
Look at those pects!
Look at those ...........!
Only your hairdresser knows for sure!
Rogaine (talk about categorical attributions, it comes in "blue"
and "pink" boxes but is exactly the same stuff. Maybe so you can
buy it for yourself but pretend it is for your significant
Anyway, the possible deep structure that D. Read mentioned may be
the tendency toward dispositinal attributions and people's
deliberate attempts to elicit such attributions from other people
through body modifications.