One of my favorite psychological concepts is the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that we tend to attribute the actions of others to their character rather than their circumstances. When we see someone speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, for example, we tend to think that their reckless rather than thinking that they’re trying to get the emergency room.
It doesn’t say anything about our own behaviors and how we interpret ourselves. It simply says that we tend to interpret the actions of others as reflections of their character.
And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because we decontextualize other people. It’s a problem because other people make decisions based on their circumstances. It’s a problem because it makes us want to fix other people’s character instead of their circumstances.
I don’t know that there’s anywhere that this is more obvious than how we address poverty.
Poverty, as I’ve written before, means not having enough money. Low-income people might face a lot of other problems, but those are other problems. Some of them contribute to poverty. Some of them are caused by poverty. But poverty is simply the condition of not having enough money.
And poverty is absolutely not a question of character.
But far too often, our attempts to address poverty are focused on character. We focus on changing family systems. We demand accountability to standards we set. We urge low-income individuals to become self-sufficient. We strive to convert low-income families to ‘middle-class culture.’ All of these strategies and more are about changing the person, not their circumstances.
And yet we know that changing the circumstances would help more. We know that changing the circumstances gives people the freedom to behave differently. We know that changing the circumstances lets people be themselves.
Believing that poverty is a problem of character is the fundamental error that makes addressing poverty so difficult. Once we imagine that poverty is a set of circumstances that can be changed – instead of a problem of character – we’ll have a much easier time ending it.