9 October 2011

What do Amanda Knox's facial expressions and Slutwalks have in common?

An issue of responsibility


Everyone's a psychologist. Correction: everyone thinks they are a psychologist. Much of the coverage of post-appeal Amanda Knox has focused on her facial expressions during her trial and what they had supposedly revealed about her character. Throughout her trial, she was accused by prosecutors and journalists of being overly sexual (which led them to infer that she was guilty – of something). The problem we humans face when we are trying to infer somebody else's mental state is that all we have to go on is their facial expressions and other verbal and non-verbal cues. Yet, we are not very good at this. We then tend to infer that a person's behaviour is caused by their personality more than it is caused by situational factors. This is called the 'fundamental attribution error' (the operative word being 'error'). In contrast, when we personally do something of which we are not proud, we tend to attribute the cause to situational influences. This all adds up to make us sound very self-righteous: if Amanda Knox smiled in a situation where we expected sombre reflection, we attribute this to some sinister flaw in her character.

There is a misplaced assumption that seems to underlie much of the sensationalism around Knox: namely, that she should have taken responsibility for other people's attributions of herself, and modified her behaviour accordingly. This leaves no room for 'other people' to take responsibility for their own errors in judgement. And yet it is deeply offensive to place the responsibility for "attracting" attention on the victims of that attention, as per that misplaced assumption about Knox. The purpose of the 'Slutwalks' that took place first in Toronto, Canada, and then around the world (notably in Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim country) was to protest against a similar assumption. Participants of the Slutwalks marched in protest against explaining or excusing rape by referring to a victim's appearance. Is not a belief in a similar assumption part of the reason that women are required to wear "modest" dress in some cultures? Let's re-establish a culture of responsibility here: the way people dress, the way they express themselves non-verbally, does not excuse other people's errors in judgment and behaviour. Everyone should take responsibility for their own cognitions and behaviours – rather than blame them on the behaviour of someone else.