This is marginally related to my last post, but only insomuch as I read something Facebook and then stewed and grumbled about it for a while.

This one goes like this: someone sees a person in a store paying with food stamps and using an iPhone. The complaint, of course, is that no one on public assistance should be wasting what little money they have on something so frivolous as a costly smart phone.

Sure. I’ll give you that. There are certainly lazy people out there who will take whatever handout they can get, and then make poor choices—like spending their money on an iPhone instead of repairs on their aging car, or nice clothes for job interviews, or whatever.

I find it hard to believe, though, that there are more than a few of these people, and I find it extremely hard to believe that the (often conservative) people who re-post this particular meme don’t know anyone who has ever fallen on hard times, through no fault of their own. I’ve certainly known people who have been laid off, whose homes have plummeted in value shortly after purchase, who have found nothing but grief in trying to find a job in the past few years. Why is it so hard to believe that the same might be true of someone in the grocery store?

Maybe the guy with the food stamps was borrowing the iPhone from a friend. Maybe he bought it three years ago, before he was laid off, before he lost his house, before he moved back into his parents’ basement. Maybe a generous friend was paying his data plan so that he could respond to email from potential employers. Maybe he just had an iPhone because it’s a lot cheaper than a computer and Internet service, so he just did everything he needed to do from a three-inch screen.

It’s really easy to assume the worst in a stranger. Thanks to Drew, I now know that this probably qualifies as the fundamental attribution error. There’s a nice long explanation on Wikipedia with all the social psychology details you might need, but the short version seems to be that people just assume the worst in others.

So: people deem themselves to be better than someone else based on one small bit of available information, without considering the multitude of other factors affecting the situation. Now that you and I both know that it’s a psychological bias, I hope that you’ll catch yourself when you make the same error in the future, and point it out to others who do the same.