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Applying Fundamental Attribution Error to the Investigation

On March 11, 2004 four of Madrid’s train stations were hit with what CBS called the deadliest terrorist attack on Europe in decades. Bombs were planted inside trains and near stations, set to explode almost simultaneously during the morning rush hour. The bombs were deliberately timed to fire as the trains were approaching the stations. Commuters were pulling emergency exits only to be forced into hectic train terminals full of people pushing up the stairs to escape the fire and smoke, encroaching from all directions. Ten explosions occurred between 7:37 and 7:40 a.m., killing 191 people and injuring more than 2,000. Eventually, the culprit was found to be Al Qaeda, after it’s members admitted to executing the attacks on Spain – occurring exactly 911 days after the September 11th tragedy.

During the process of convicting Al Qaeda there was a serious failure in judgement, known as the “Madrid Error,” where the F.B.I. wrongly accused and jailed American Attorney Brandon Mayfield on the grounds of an erroneous fingerprint match. Criminal Defense Attorney John Rodriguez, a former private investigator and police officer, believes the F.B.I.’s invalid identification was due to fundamental attribution error, a perceiver’s tendency to overvalue personality based aspects of a case, opposed to situational. In this case, the error was based on contextual information. The attorney explains that researchers had discovered a match to the fingerprints found at the Madrid bombing crime scene, but when they took the evidence to the fingerprint experts – they told them that there was no match. Consequently, the fingerprint experts found no match. When applying fundamental attribution error, one can argue that the experts subconsciously came to the same conclusion because that is what they were told before their investigation. “That [contextual] information, that there was no match,” Rodriguez says, “influenced their perception, their objectivity – it created a bias.”

People tend to label behavior based on personality traits, as opposed to looking at the circumstances behind the behavior.

John Rodriquez

David Stout of the Washington Post spoke with the case’s investigation panel which explained that “the F.B.I. culture discouraged fingerprint examiners from disagreeing with their superiors,” thus resulting in the error. "Once the mind-set occurred with the initial examiner, the subsequent examinations were tainted." After the original match was discarded, further testing lead examiners to wrongly jail Mayfield. The Madrid train bombings are a pertinent and valuable example of how fundamental attribution error can change a case, Rodriguez continues to explain the theory and other ways it can be applied.

Fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias or the attribution effect, is best defined through example. Rodriguez gives a hypothetical scenario: if an investigator watches someone walk into the room and he or she trips, the investigator may label that person as clumsy. Although the person may not be clumsy at all, there may have been a cord blocking his or her path. The mind can quickly jump to conclusions when it is lacking contextual evidence because it makes the situation easier to understand. “People tend to label behavior based on personality traits, as opposed to looking at the circumstances behind the behavior,” Rodriguez explains.

When working on an investigation, fundamental attribution error can be labeled as profiling due to race, age, gender, and simply the person’s behavior when the investigator first encounters the witnesses and other individuals who were involved. “There’s a tendency of investigators to come up with their own hypothesis of how the crime occurred, and that can affect how they collect the evidence,” Rodriguez says. He gives an example, imagine an investigator arrives at a crime scene where domestic violence has occurred. There is one person there with blood on them who is calm and collected, and the other person is completely hysterical. The investigator may assume that the hysterical person is the victim, and begin to collect evidence that proves his or her presumption. Outside interpretations can also affect an investigator’s perception. For instance, if a cop shares his or her hypothesis of the case, or like the Madrid train bombings, if the examiners share their evidence – the investigator may subconsciously look to prove the common, and already accepted, conclusion.

If you expand the discussion and incorporate [fundamental attribution error] into an investigation, an investigator then knowing that there is a tendency to label, can then use those skills to pull back the layers of the biases, influences, and assumption.

John Rodriquez

Rodriguez stresses the importance of being aware of the attribution effect within witnesses interviews and memories of the case. “If a witness’s testimony is colored up by a certain type of bias,” Rodriguez says, “it can skew the accuracy of what he or she saw.” There may have been influences that could have prompted a witness to say what he or she said, or explain the events of the case in a certain way. “The investigator’s job is to get to the truth of the matter,” Rodriguez explains, “They [the witnesses] may think they saw yellow, but it was really red. So the job of the investigator is to confirm and identify whether the light was truly yellow, by pulling back some of the biases.”

Rodriguez notes that fundamental attribution error is not a legally recognized defense in court. The attorney uses attribution bias mostly in mitigation and explaining the circumstances of a case. “The prosecution may paint a monster,” he says, “and it’s my job to mitigate that.” Identifying biases within a case, like the fingerprint expert’s bias to mirror their superior’s examinations, can be the first step to revealing the true victim and to finding evidence to expose the culprit.

Incorporating attribution bias into an investigator’s practice starts with becoming educated on how certain biases influence thinking and perception. Once the investigator has done this, Rodriguez suggests to put together a list of questions for the case and how he or she wants to explore the evidence. For example, what influences may have prompted that witness to say what they said? What behaviors could have influenced a witness to have a certain perception of the defendant?

Or in reference to the Madrid train bombings, what information may have lead the fingerprint examiners to come to the conclusions that they did? Why did the researchers choose to tell the examiners that there was no match? These questions could have exposed Al Qaeda in the initial investigation for their terrorist attacks on Spain, and kept the innocent out of jail. “If you expand the discussion and incorporate [fundamental attribution error] into an investigation,” Rodriguez says,” an investigator then knowing that there is a tendency to label, can then use those skills to pull back the layers of the biases, influences, and assumptions” and get to the truth of the case.


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