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Zuma, Obama and misreading intentions

You’re all familiar with that asshat driver who speeds up to close a gap you were about to merge into. Maybe you are that driver? If so, you’d also be aware of those occasions where you did so accidentally – perhaps you hadn’t noticed the other car trying to merge, or perhaps you suddenly realised you were late for an appointment, and sped up.

Of course, perhaps you’re just an asshat. But let’s assume not, and instead use this as an example of what is called the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology. This error describes our habit of assuming intention or motive to explain behaviour, rather than considering external factors like the two listed above.

The same error has been in evidence in some reactions – especially in the intemperate world of social media, to this photograph of Presidents Zuma and Barack Obama.

zuma+phoneFor some who distrust or dislike Zuma, whether for good or bad reasons, the photograph is evidence of his arrogance, or simply an opportunity to mock or criticise him (because he was obviously talking to someone more important than Obama, like the Guptas).

But there’s no reason to assume anything sinister, or anything worth mockery or criticism here. A still image, taken out of a context, tells us nothing about what either man was thinking. Obama could have approached Zuma while the latter was already on the phone, as the former was on his way to another table and thought to just quickly say “hello”.

We don’t know. What we do know is that people can reveal their own attitudes, pretty clearly, in how they respond to images such as these. Criticism is good, and necessary – but let’s try to keep it evidence-based.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.