Watching for Birds . . . and for Attribution Errors

May 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

By now you’ve probably seen the cellphone video that Christian Cooper made during his unpleasant encounter with Amy Cooper when he was bird-watching in the Central Park Ramble and she was letting her dog run loose. He asked to leash the dog, just as the sign nearby indicated. She apparently disagreed.  The confrontation escalated.

The video shows the her calling the cops. “I’m in the Ramble, there is a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” And “I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”

Through it all, Mr. Cooper remains admirably calm, given what might happen if the cops do show up, and not in the last threatening,

Yes, it’s about race. It’s also about norms and norm enforcement, it’s about formal social control (the cops) and informal social control, it’s about birders and dog owners, it’s about the use of urban spaces. But for me, it was about the Fundamental Attribution Error — our tendency to explain people’s behavior as arising from internal factors like personality and to ignore the situational factors. (That’s when we’re explaining the behavior of others. When it comes to explaining our own behavior, the balance of internal and external explanations is pretty much the opposite.)

All over Twitter, people are condemning Amy Cooper. Understandable. But they are also attributing to her all sorts of ideas, knowledge, feelings, life history, and past behaviors that they cannot possibly know about. Here’s one example:

I’ve worked for people like this - it’s rage (that he was disobeying her), not fear, that made her call. And of course, racism, because she knew just what danger she was putting him in by making that call.

 Mr. Cooper, by contrast, refuses to leap to these global characterizations, especially on the central question of whether Amy Cooper is a racist.

NPR: She said that she is not a racist. How do you respond to her?

C. COOPER: I can't tell you whether or not she’s a racist. I can tell you what she did in that moment, and it was a moment of, you know, stress and of confrontation and of, you know, probably spectacularly poor judgment. But in that moment, what she did was definitely racist. Now, should she be defined by that couple-of-seconds moment? I can’t answer that.

I had already admired Cooper for his calm and obviously non-threatening behavior displayed in the video, especially given what might happen if the cops actually arrive. But his interview raised that admiration higher. First, he realizes that Amy Cooper’s behavior was, at least in part, a reaction to the situation. And second, he refuses to make those attributions about what is in her head.

Jay Smooth makes the same point in this video, which I cited in a 2011 post “Constructing Character” l: Too often “what started out as a what-you-said [or did] conversation turns into a what-you-are conversation.”


Jay Smooth says that in these conversations, the “who you are” assumption leads to “mutual frustration.” On the Internet, it leads to self-righteous moral condemnation and to death threats and other calls for punishment. Cooper is quite sensible about that as well. “I am told there has been death threats, and that is wholly inappropriate and abhorrent and should stop immediately.”

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