The Psychological Shortcoming That Can Help Explain Why We’re Arresting Innocent Moms

What Women Really Think
July 16 2014 1:10 PM

The Psychological Shortcoming That Can Help Explain Why We’re Arresting Innocent Moms

Debra Harrell
Why was Debra Harrell arrested for letting her daughter play in a park alone?

Screenshot from WJBF ABC-6

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

Generally speaking, when you're trying to understand a news event through a behavioral-science lens, it's not a good idea to roll up, loudly invoke some psychological buzzword, and then drop the mike as though your work is done. People are complicated, and their actions can rarely be boiled down to any one mechanism. But still, as I've read Jonathan Chait's and Radley Balko's recent articles about parents being arrested for letting their kids play outside without supervision, one such buzzword has repeatedly popped into my head: the fundamental attribution error.

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To review the case Chait highlighted: Debra Harrell of North Augusta, South Carolina, had been bringing her daughter to her (the mom's) job at McDonald's every day, where she would sit with her laptop. After the family's house was robbed and the laptop stolen, the girl asked to be dropped off at a playground for the day. Another parent called police, and Harrell was arrested for unlawful conduct toward a child.

So what is the fundamental attribution error, and how does it apply here? It's simply the tendency to believe people's actions are driven by some fundamental aspect of their character rather than situational factors. In this case, as Chait rightly points out, it's clear this mom didn't have a lot of other options with regard to child care, and she figured her daughter would be safe at what is apparently a well-populated park. In short, it appears she had a pretty good reason to leave her daughter there while she was at work (especially because, despite widespread hysteria over strangers snatching children randomly, such cases are exceedingly rare).

The fundamental attribution error screams otherwise: No, this is a terrible mom! She is a bad, neglectful person, because a good mom wouldn't have left her kid alone for hours. That can explain some of the angry response to this, and the fact that she and other parents in difficult situations are facing what certainly appear to be trumped-up charges.

Not everyone gets battered by other people's fundamental attribution errors, though, and that's where things get tricky and class- and race-driven. Suffice it to say parents in suburban neighborhoods like the one in which I grow up, where I was wandering about well before Harrell's daughter was, don't get tossed in jail for letting their kids play outside.

Even in a slightly more extreme scenario—say, one in which I got lost and ended up in an unfamiliar part of the neighborhood—there's very little chance the authorities would have been involved. Most likely, I would have rung a doorbell, gotten help from the concerned adult within, and been returned home. My mom or dad would have explained what had happened—"Oh, he likes to ride his bike over there, but must have taken a left instead of a right on Ward Street on his way home"—and that would have been that. The situation, not my parents' character, would be seen as sufficient to explain what had happened.

So there's clearly something selective about the fundamental attribution error. An African-American mom working at McDonald's—that is, someone many people already have a bunch of preconceived notions about, whether or not they'll say them aloud—is a much more attractive target for it than a suburban parent.

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at NYMag.com, where he edits the social-science blog Science of Us. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.  

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