Peace Scholar Post: American Exceptionalism and Cognitive Bias

This is part of a series of blog posts written by the 2014 Peace Scholars as they experience their summer program in Norway. This post was written by Bradley St. Aubin from Augsburg College.

As the Peace Scholars wrap up our second week in Oslo, we continue to pack as much into each day as we can. From meeting prominent Norwegian figures such as Knut Vollebæk and Jan Egeland to becoming enamored with the film Trollhunter (a cinematic masterpiece if I do say so myself) we rarely come up for air. In addition to becoming familiar with such Norwegian masterpieces like Trollhunter and Mr. Egeland, our classes have been fascinating, as well. Though I am a psychology major, I have been challenging myself in an International Politics course and I am finding that I quite enjoy bridging the gap between models of international relations and psychological concepts. This week brought forth my favorite connection yet in the form of a discussion about American Exceptionalism.

Bradley pictureAmerican Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is distinct from all other countries, has a special role to play in world history, and is immune to threats which brought down former superpowers such as the Roman Empire. This idea of exceptionalism is taught to American students at a young age and instilled in us as a core value. This method of teaching citizens that America is some shining beacon of goodness leads to quite a lot of biases being formed, and social psychology loves talking about biases.

Also known as correspondence bias, the fundamental attribution error occurs when a person thinks of his or her own actions as a result of external stimuli, but explains other people’s behavior as a result of internal character. I find that Americans, including myself, are guilty of ignoring external stimuli when we think of why other countries do things. One glaring example is how the Bush administration proclaimed that America would fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. This led to many American citizens believing that all women in the Middle East are treated poorly because of some internal, woman-hating quality imbued in people of that region. It is maddening, then, to look at gender issues in America, such as the fight over the reproductive rights of women, and realize that they are not used to damn the entire country. Many Americans continue to think that other countries are wholly bad and that anything negative in America is caused by only a few people.

The fundamental attribution error is one of the most common biases people commit, and the constant reminders US citizens are given about American Exceptionalism do a great job at enforcing that bias. With the platform granted to me as a Peace Scholar, I believe it is important to draw attention to the ways America stands for peace, but also to remind fellow Americans that just because something we don’t agree with happens in another country or region, it does not mean that place, as a whole, is evil. I feel that these interdisciplinary bridges that I am building will be invaluable as I continue through the Peace Scholar program and continue my work as an advocate for Peace.

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