Attribution Theory at the Gas Pump

June 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, people are psychologists. If asked to explain, say, giving to charity, they tend to think in terms of personal traits. Generous people give, stingy people don’t. They ignore situational and structural factors and instead attribute cause to personal factors. (See the previous post in this blog.)

Faced with $4 gasoline, 35% of Americans blame oil companies; only 14% attribute the price to the market forces of supply and demand. And only 3% choose the demand from US drivers as the major cause. (Poll data are here.)

A quarter of those polled blame President Bush.

Who would hold such a silly idea that the President can control oil prices? George W. Bush, for one. Paul Krugman in his blog yesterday linked to a New York Times story from eight years ago.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said today that if he was president, he would bring down gasoline prices through sheer force of personality, by creating enough political good will with oil-producing nations that they would increase their supply of crude.

“I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot, to increase the supply,” Mr. Bush . . . told reporters here today. “Use the capital that my administration will earn, with the Kuwaitis or the Saudis, and convince them to open up the spigot.”
It’s not surprising that Bush sees economics and politics as a matter of personality traits and personal relationships. This is, after all, the man who looked into the soul of Vladimir Putin and found it good. It is also a man whose own economic and political fortunes depended heavily on personal and family connections. When connections and charm have saved you from financial ruin a few times (not to mention keeping you out of Vietnam) and have ultimately brought you wealth and success, you probably think connections and charm can work for the country as a whole. Can we really expect a person who thinks this way to see complex political and economic structural forces?

Read the whole Times article. It’s a little like thumbing back through the early chapters of a mystery once you’ve finished it and getting that eerie feeling when you see all those clues you didn’t notice the first time through.
“The fundamental question is, ‘Will I be a successful president when it comes to foreign policy?’ ”

He went on to suggest, as he did in answer to other questions, that voters should simply trust him.
They did – at least once, maybe twice.

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