At Virtuous Prom, we’re about so much more than making beautifully modest prom and wedding dresses. Every day, we work with women from various creeds, backgrounds and ethnicities; and every week, if not every day, we see the world being torn apart by violence and hate. So it was that in 2016 that we created the Virtuous Prom Peace Project, in the hopes that we could encourage bright young women in studies that will help to make peace possible: Anthropology, Theology, Psychology and Sociology.

This year, we’re excited to introduce the third finalist of our second annual Virtuous Prom Peace Project, Rebecka Fenqvist.

When Reason Ends – The Power of Attribution

September 30

September 30th was a day that tested my community and myself, and how I understood psychology. It was a late summer’s day when it was still sunny and warm, and even though classes started some weeks ago, the sunshine made us feel like summer break was still on.

This day however, there was a demonstration held in my city. The largest Neo-Nazi demonstration since the second world war. Around eight hundred demonstrators from all over northern Europe gathered to march together with shaved heads and their green flags. They were against Sweden opening an asylum to refugees from the ongoing Syrian war. They didn’t get far – even though the city council had given them permission to march, violence soon broke out. Their leaders got arrested and without someone telling them what to do, they soon dissolved in confusion and the march was over. At the same time about ten thousand people gathered in a counter-demonstration. We wanted to prove that Sweden welcomes all people and that we will not agree to having Nazis taking over our streets.

Neo-Nazi demonstrators (the Nordic Resistance Movement) clash with local police in Gothenburg, Sweden

In the following days, there was a media storm about what impact this would have on our community. It all reminded me of what I knew from television had happened in places like Charlottesville, Virginia. How could so many people support this? Why did they do it? Who gave them permission? The questions were so many.

Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

– Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, Author of To Kill A Mockingbird

Humans seem to have this tendency to wonder about reasons and causes behind behavior. In Psychology, we call this “attribution” and that’s something all of us do every day. Attribution is when we think one step further to answer the question why someone did what they did. We have quite a lot of research on attribution actually. And it all, bluntly put, concludes in that we’re not very good at it. When we wonder why people do what they do, we are often unaware of how bad we are at explaining behavior, and we are rarely correct.

Dozens of psychological theories exist on the different attribution errors that all of us make on a daily basis. One of the most common errors of attribution is the “ultimate attribution error.” This is when one believes the faults of others are due to their personal character, and that their own faults are mere circumstance. Another common mistake in attribution is the “belief in a just world”; where one believes that people will always “get what they deserve.” It is dangerous to simply diminish others when explaining bad behavior. For example, people believing these Nazis were just evil and racist people looking for excuses to be violent, without looking to the circumstances. Just as naive were the demonstrators who marched believing that by simply excluding those that are different, it would resolve problems from a war thousands of miles away and the suffering it has caused – that the issue would just go away.

The novelist Harper Lee writes about the young girl Scout growing up in a changing world of intolerance and hate. They discuss: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” I like it because it’s true: when something is unknown to us, we tend to fill in the blanks. Pushed by our curiosity, attribution is our inborn mechanism to understand what’s going on around us, and enables us to live together as humans. But the attribution errors are doing us wrong and this is something that got clearer to me through my education in Psychology. Too often we let prejudice take over instead of faith. Or, more importantly, instead of actually trying to find more information. I finally realized that people on both sides of the September 30th demonstrations were dividing up my community, simply by their different attribution of the events.

I believe that this is how the errors connect closely to prejudice. We simply don’t understand and that’s where we fill in with our own assumptions and act upon them. This way the problem goes both ways. If you ask me, we have divided into “us” and “them,” both sides driven further apart by anger and fear. And misunderstanding. What perhaps drove many of the eight hundred to demonstrate in the first place was a sense of being misunderstood – left behind in a modernizing world where international issues can affect even the smallest home in Sweden. Immigration was not as important as their community, and they wanted to fight for it. The most dangerous aspect of that whole day was that we failed to understand each other. Attribution errors and prejudice will probably always be present in our interaction with other people: the difference is when we know about it. To end the violence, we have to share our knowledge and everything we know about how humans act.

In my future profession as a clinical psychologist I will spend many hours trying to understand why people do what they do. I may not be better at it than anyone else, but hopefully everything we were taught about being aware of our own prejudice, can make me less tempted to simply reduce people to “them” just because they are not like me. Hopefully, I can help myself as well as others, to chose faith before prejudice, and chose to understand instead of judging. I will strive every day to use my knowledge to help people understanding their thoughts and their behavior. What my home town needed on the day of 30th September was not just anti-banners and people in the streets, but also tools to understand what happens when reason ends. And when reason ends, I will encourage them to use their inborn power of attribution to understand our differences, and always show respect.

Curbside Flower Grows

About the author: Rebecka Fenqvist is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.