What a sad world this would be if happy people were more biased toward each other. How ironic it would be if the most-sought-after emotion in the world, happiness, sought by many a reader of self-help book and blog, carried the cost that we become worse judges of each other.
Well, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is that happiness increases the fundamental attribution error (FAE; aka “the big one” from an earlier post). The most studied bias in social psychology, the FAE, is more likely among participants who were made to feel happy than those who were made to feel sad or neutral (Forgas, 1998).
Studies on this general topic get to have fun titles, such as “On Being Happy and Mistaken” (Forgas, 1998) and “Sadder but Wiser” (Alloy & Abramson, 1979). Apparently happiness makes people less attentive to the details of a situation or other stimuli. Yeah, I’m feeling happy – I don’t want to have to pay careful attention to boring stimuli – I want to enjoy life.
My senior thesis student, Jessica Cook, and I conducted a study at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater that took the idea one step further. Jessica wanted to know whether having a good or bad day could make somebody more prone to the FAE. This day variable was not exactly about feeling happy versus sad but rather about how many stressors one has had to deal with that day or how psychologically drained one felt.
We showed that Forgas’ (1998) happiness-FAE result only occurred when participants came to the lab already having a good day. Participants who self-reported having a bad day, even though they were made to feel happy temporarily in the lab, did not show elevated levels of the FAE from the in-lab happiness. We titled our study, “On Being Happy and Mistaken on a Good Day” (Stalder & Cook, in press).
The good news, though, is that this biasing effect of positive emotion, that positive emotion can increase the FAE, has a glaring exception. A prominent example of the FAE is victim blaming (Gilovich & Eibach, 2001), and happiness actually decreases victim blaming (Goldenberg & Forgas, 2012). Yay. Thank goodness, right?
In victim blaming, we blame the victims of tragic circumstances for their own suffering. The victim is put on trial. A classic and contemporary example is the blaming of rape victims for getting raped. Historically and recently, some (even jurists) explain a rape by saying that the victim should’ve known better in how she dressed, how much she drank, where she hung out at that time of day, etc…
In a way, victim blamers are victims themselves, of having to witness someone else suffer. It’s distressing to watch a victim suffer, especially when the victim did nothing to cause the tragic event.
Oh wait – maybe the victim did cause the tragic event or could’ve easily done a lot more to stop it. Yeah, that’s it. That would be a relief. Suffering and injustice are hard to watch, but if victims brought it on themselves, then at least it’s not a completely innocent person who is suffering. Whew. I feel a little better now.
Victim blamers don’t necessarily say these exact words to themselves, but that’s the idea. And not all of us victim blame – it’s just on average and can depend on the specific circumstances.
My point is that the distress caused by watching an innocent victim suffer can be somewhat relieved by finding some way to blame the victim for the suffering. But my bigger point is that happy people are less prone to feel such distress or are better able to handle it (because they’re happy), and so they have less need to blame the victim. Goldenberg and Forgas (2012) wrote that happy people can “more effectively cope with adverse and threatening information” (p. 242).
This convoluted thought process in victim blaming also helps us to feel more in control of negative life events. Because I’m not going to commit the same “mistakes” as a rape victim or other victims of tragic circumstances, then I can worry less about the same tragic circumstances happening to me. Yeah, that’s it.
In truth, besides Forgas, Goldenberg, Cook, and I, no one else has directly investigated the happiness-FAE phenomenon of which I’m aware. So there may be other happy exceptions besides how happy people are less likely to blame victims.
And of course happy people are happy. So keep striving for happiness if you want.
But if you’re feeling happy on a good day and want to avoid the FAE, just remember to look especially carefully at the situation when explaining someone’s behavior.
Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 441-485.
Forgas, J. P. (1998). On being happy and mistaken: Mood effects on the fundamental attribution error. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 318-331.
Gilovich, T., & Eibach, R. (2001). The fundamental attribution error where it really counts. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 23-26.
Goldenberg, L., & Forgas, J. P. (2012). Can happy mood reduce the just world bias? Affective influences on blaming the victim. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 239-243.
Stalder, D. R., & Cook, J. A. (in press). On being happy and mistaken on a good day: Revisiting Forgas’ (1998) mood-bias result. Journal of Social Psychology.