Fundamental attribution error

Another mistake I think people make when they discuss police brutality, or war crimes, is to attribute them to some characteristic of the population that joins the military or becomes a police officer. One of my commenters says:

I think a lot of folks who join the military (not to mention police officers and prison guards) have authoritarian or sadistic tendencies which in turn increase the probability of war crimes being committed, especially given the stress of being under fire, in a strange land, among hostile locals.

What would you expect from people who sign up for a job where you maim and kill people you don't even know, just because someone else told you to do it?

(sorry if I offend anyone; I know a few of you just signed up for the tuition support or needed the money and got more than you bargained for)

Maybe this is so, but I'm skeptical. I've known a lot of quasi-pacifists with aggressive, domineering personalities and a startling lack of empathy. Give them slightly different political beliefs and an M-16, and I sure wouldn't turn my back on them.

It seems highly probable that there's some selection bias. But a desire to kick some ass is only one reason to become a police officer or a soldier. There's also a desire for justice, an interest in protecting your community, a sense of duty to something larger than yourself, a desire to do something really important with your life, like, say, put it between your beloved home and war's desolation. What do I expect from people like that? Quite a lot, actually.

But as the Milgram experiments show, most people given unlimited power over other human beings tend to abuse that power unless there are adequate institutional safeguards against us. We are natural bullies. And in mobs, we quite often make each other worse. Military culture fights this natural tendency with a pretty rigorous code of conduct--but in the end you've got a bunch of boys out on a corner with big guns. There's only so much that a code of conduct can do.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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