A Psychological Theory Explains the Mail Bomber Reaction

Some blame right-wing extremism; others blame left-wing extremism. There isn’t even a suspect yet.

Police stand outside of the Time Warner building after a suspicious package was found inside CNN Headquarters
Police stand outside of the Time Warner building after a suspicious package was found inside CNN Headquarters (Kevin Coombs / Reuters)

There’s no suspect yet for the spate of mail bombs terrorizing America, but don’t expect this minor detail to prevent the opinion-makers from divining the sender’s motives. I mean, who needs a suspect to know exactly what he, or maybe she, secretly wants?

So far, many have blamed right-wing extremism. And perhaps that’s only natural given the intended recipients, a Who’s Who list of President Donald Trump’s political nemeses, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Maxine Waters, George Soros, even Robert De Niro. I don’t mean to reject as baseless the presumed linkage between targets and motives. After all, research has found that the target is a fairly reliable indicator of the terrorist’s ideology. Who usually bombs abortion clinics? That’s right, anti-abortion extremists. Still, it’s wise to wait for a suspect to materialize before looking into his heart.

Predictably, some on the political right are convinced that the unknown perpetrator is a left-winger trying to make them look bad. John Cardillo, a right-wing media personality, tweeted this “false flag” theory: “Investigators need to take a serious look at far left groups like #Antifa when investigating the bombs sent to Soros, Obama, and the Clintons. These smell like the false flag tactics of unhinged leftists who know they’re losing.” Bill Mitchell, another Trump booster, elaborated: “These ‘explosive packages’ being sent to the #Media and high profile Democrats has Soros astro-turfing written all over it so the media can paint the #GOP as ‘the dangerous mob.’ Pure BS.” Not to be outdone, Frank Gaffney, the founder of a right-wing think tank, tweeted his suspicion that the mail bomber is a wily Democrat “trying to deflect attention from the Left’s mobs.” Right on cue, Fox News fanned this theory, too.

One analogue to this attack is the anthrax episode of 2001. Soon after 9/11, a bunch of letters containing anthrax spores were mailed anonymously to Democratic politicians and news-media offices. At the time, the lack of a suspect did not preclude insight into his identity and even his inner thought process. When asked by a reporter if there was any direct connection between 9/11 and the anthrax letters that followed, President George W. Bush replied: “I have no direct evidence but there are some links … both series of actions are motivated to disrupt Americans’ way of life.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered a similar explanation for this week’s anonymous bombs. After admitting that law enforcement has yet to “find the perpetrator or perpetrators,” he nonetheless maintained that “someone is trying, or some group of people are trying to terrorize us, trying to get us to lose faith in our government, in our institutions, in our society.” Or, he mused, “someone is trying to quash voices in this country using violence.” The number of interpretations is seemingly endless. Conversely, the explosives expert Ryan Morris said the purpose was clearly not to shake America’s foundations through terror because “there are a multitude of more sophisticated methodologies that would have worked if they really wanted this to work.”

So the mail bomber is a right-wing zealot. Or a left-wing zealot. Who is trying to terrorize Americans. Or not to terrorize Americans.

What do all of these presumed motives have in common? They’re based on the observable consequences of the mail bombings. De Blasio and others are inferring the terrorist’s motives directly from the observable effects of his behavior.

Correspondent Inference Theory sheds some light on what’s happening here. The theory was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by the social psychologist Edward Jones to explain the cognitive process by which individuals determine what other people want. He relied on the foundational work of Fritz Heider, who saw individuals as “naive psychologists” driven by a practical need to simplify, comprehend, and predict other people’s motives.

Jones showed that observers tend to interpret an actor’s objective in terms of the consequence of the action. He offered the following example to illustrate the assumption that effect and objective are one and the same: A boy notices his mother shut the door, and the room becomes less noisy; the correspondent inference is that she wanted quiet. Sometimes this inference system pans out, and sometimes it doesn’t: Maybe the boy’s mother felt a draft.

If you see Democrats harmed, you will see that as the intent. If you see Republicans harmed, you will see that as the intent. If you see disruption from an attack, you surmise the point was to disrupt. If you see an ineffectual attack, you wonder whether the attacker had more modest aims.

As you follow the news of the mail bombs and other terrorist threats, be on the lookout for commentators who claim to know the suspect’s motives before they’re available. Doing so is natural, but inadvisable. Remember: Maybe the boy’s mother felt a draft.