The 'power of god' attribution error

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I was reading an article this morning that I found on fark (yeah yeah...) and for once I actually read the comments underneath the main article. I was pretty surprised on the consistency of the attribution errors that the religious folks were making and thought it would be something interesting to share here and get your thoughts.

For the setup here's the (really pretty amazing!) story:

On the hike, Cole started fooling around by walking in the water. It was not incredibly steep, but the water had lots of slippery algae and rocks.

To Johnson, it looked dangerous. She pleaded with her boyfriend to get back on dry ground.

"He's one of those daredevil kids, so it (the warning) did not do any good," Johnson said.

Suddenly Cole slipped. For a split second, it seemed OK.

"Then I lost control and could not stop," he said.

He careened about 120 feet, bashing his head on rocks. He stopped, bloody and unconscious, face-down in a pool of water. That was actually a lucky break because he just missed sliding off a tall drop-off.

His second lucky break was the fact his girlfriend of four years is a senior nursing student at the University of Michigan.

Cole was not breathing when she reached him, so she gave him a few "rescue breaths." It worked. Cole coughed and spit water.

Johnson took off her swimming suit to bandage gashes on his head, then carried him down a hill that took them 45 minutes to climb. Most of the way, she said, she cradled him, talked to him and tried to keep him conscious.

"With head injuries, I knew it was important to keep him from going into a coma," she said.

Johnson is athletic -- a state champion hurdler at Grass Lake -- but it defies explanation that she, at 115 pounds, carried a 160-pound man so far.

"She tried picking me up again the other day and could hold me for only a few seconds," Cole said.

"If all the money in the world was placed on it now," she said, "I don't think I could do it again. It was adrenaline and God."

Cole's third piece of luck came at the bottom of the hill. The first people to find them were an intensive-care nurse and an emergency-room nurse.

Now here's the problem, comments praising God all fall into a very similar pattern...

Here's a selection:

What a 'coincidence' that she is a nurse, and the first two people they encounter are an ER Nurse ICU Nurse.....thats God.

Why do you assume God intentionally put slippery rocks there? God gave us free will to make idiots out of ourselves, just like you.

I am not the most knowledgeable in the hand of God works. But I thought God allowed people to make choices which Aaron did.....and Shelly responded with an inner strength she may not have known she had -- and that's God's way?...

It's looks to me like people are blaming the boyfriend and his poor judgment for the accident and the grace of God for this girls ability to physically pull the boyfriend out and down the hill (as well as her being a nurse in training or something, as well running into trauma nurses at the bottom). Now I don't hang out with many religious folks so I'm not sure how consistent this is but I've definitely seen this before (anyone want to do the study?!).

This is very similar to the ultimate attribution error to me, except that it doesn't focus on an out-group. The ultimate attribution error is a common cognitive bias that causes people to attribute behavior of out-group (ethnic, social, or anyone not like us) members to either internal or external factors depending on whether it was a positive or negative outcome. So if someone does something positive, like the other team winning, it was an external factor - such as the weather or home-field advantage. On the other hand if someone does something stupid it wasn't because the situation led them to it, instead it was them being a dumbass - like the boyfriend falling into the water.

There is something very different about this style of attribution error with religious folks, usually when an out-group has something bad happen to them (think Christianity vs. Islam) it is God punishing them. However, when something good happens - well I don't know what people assume then. Any ideas?

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Welcome back!

By John Adams (not verified) on 21 Sep 2009 #permalink

Athletes and singers almost always say that they couldn't have won (the game, an award, etc.) without God's help. I've always wondered if they really believe that God chose them to win, and therefore chose others to lose. You rarely hear them attribute someone else's success (such as the other team) to such divine patronage.

Welcome back Omni!

My standard alternative interpretation: It was her belief in God that provided an extra boost. I mean this in the sense that her religious beliefs have served as mental conditioning for expectation of a positive outcome despite long odds. Expectations have a proven impact on willingness to exert effort.

Of course, had she credited God and then subsequently the b/f died in the hospital anyway, the story likely would likely not have been reported, or would have omitted that quote. So there's a question of reporting bias, too.

There is something very different about this style of attribution error with religious folks, usually when an out-group has something bad happen to them (think Christianity vs. Islam) it is God punishing them. However, when something good happens - well I don't know what people assume then. Any ideas?

Some combination of "God is testing us" and "God works in mysterious ways," I expect.

By Treppenwitz (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink