Last week, amid speculation that Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may be forced to recuse himself from the expanding Russia investigation – unless he gets fired first – attention focused on the next in line: Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Brand, it should be noted, has had a more obviously partisan career than Rosenstein, and the burning question seems to be whether she has the gumption or the will to stand up to the President if he tries to derail the investigation, for example by trying to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (This is not to say Trump has the authority to fire Mueller – Marty Lederman argues that he doesn’t.) Does Brand have what it takes? Jack Goldsmith and Ben Wittes, both of whom know her well, affirm that she does and describe her as “intelligent, fair, independent, and tough-minded.”

My own answer to the question “who is Rachel Brand?” is: it doesn’t much matter. It’s simply a mistake to focus on individual personality to predict how someone will act. Social psychologists have a long-standing name for this mistake: they call it the fundamental attribution error. That’s the error of explaining human behavior by individual character and personality traits. The situation in which we find ourselves matters crucially, often invisibly, and to a far greater degree than common sense would suggest. This is a lesson we might apply not only to Brand, but also to Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and other souls in this administration.

A bit of background:

In a classic 1972 experiment, a person coming out of a phone booth sees a woman spill her folder full of papers on the shopping mall floor a few feet away. (She is part of the experimental team, and she spills them on purpose.) Will subjects help her pick up the papers? Among one group of subjects, the answer was overwhelmingly yes: fourteen people helped and only two did not. In a second group, it was overwhelmingly no. Only one subject helped; the other 24 walked away.

What explains the difference? Something amazingly small: Those in the first group had found a dime in the telephone’s coin return, which apparently put them in a benevolent mood. Those in the second group found no dime, and they stepped around the spilled papers and went their not-so-merry way. A trivial and nearly invisible manipulation of the situation led to a dramatic change in outcomes.

According to the “situationist” school of psychology, this experiment (along with many others, including the famous Milgram obedience experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment) shows that we deceive ourselves when we think character is the crucial determinant of how we behave. In the Stanford experiment, one subject who described himself as a non-violent person and pacifist transformed into a brutal prison guard in a matter of days. Which was he, a self-deceiving brute in pacifist’s clothes, or a sensitive soul who forgot himself?

Neither one, according to the situationists. Look to the situation, not to the person. He was a prison guard, and as he explained in his diary (reproduced in a write up of the psychology experiment), “This new prisoner, 416, refuses to eat. That is a violation of Rule Two … and we are not going to have any of that kind of shit. … I decide to force feed him. … I let the food slide down his face. I don’t believe it is me doing it.” For the situationists, there is nothing unbelievable about it, because the “me” who does it is not a constant.

This seems wildly counterintuitive, because we always think about people’s character, their virtues and vices. Isn’t there a difference between a brave person and a coward? Not necessarily, according to philosopher John Doris. In a pioneering 2002 book, Doris writes:

It’s not crazy to think that someone could be courageous in physical but not moral extremity, or be moderate with food but not sex, or be honest with spouses but not with taxes. … With a bit of effort, we can imagine someone showing physical courage on the battlefield, but cowering in the face of storms, heights, or wild animals. … Things can get still trickier: Someone might exhibit battlefield courage in the face of rifle fire but not in the face of artillery fire. (Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, p. 62.)

Doris’s point: there is no such thing as “courage” across the board. Courage, like every other character trait, can be entirely situation-specific. If that seems contrary to everyday experience, it’s because most of us, most of the time, live in the same situation from one day to the next: we see the same family and friends today that we saw yesterday and will see tomorrow; we live in the same locale for months or years at a time, and if we’re employed we work at the same job.

Of course, not even the most radical situationists think individual personality is irrelevant to the choices we make. Talk about the fundamental attribution error does not deny free will or individual differences, or assert that only situations matter, one hundred percent. Rather, the error lies in vastly overestimating character and ignoring the hidden power of the situation – which we do all the time, not least when we play the blame game in criminal sentencing. (I heartily recommend the powerful podcast “The Personality Myth,” especially its second episode.) My wife sometimes teaches college philosophy in a prison, where many of her students committed crimes of violence. In the classroom setting, she finds them no different from other college students, and she feels no less safe in their company.

For years, psychologists debated which variable matters more, person or situation; some tried to quantify it. Like many academic debates, this one was technically intricate and personally acrimonious – in the words of psychologist John Kihlstrom, it “ended up looking more like a fight in an elementary schoolyard.” Over the years, psychologists began to look beyond the sharp either/or, and instead study the way that person and situation influence each other. (In the jargon, this is “person/situation interactionism.”)

To take a simple example: people behave differently toward a baby depending on whether they’re told the baby is a girl or a boy. The person (the baby) transforms the situation he or she is in (in this case, the way people treat the baby). And vice-versa: how people treat girls and boys as they grow up affects the person they become. On this line of thought, whenever you enter a room full of people, you become part of the situation of the other people in the room. You change how the others behave; they become part of your situation, and influence how you behave. That’s interactionism. The theory has been around for decades, since the pioneering work of psychologist Kurt Lewin and sociologist Erving Goffman.

Enough of the theory. What it means for the Russia investigation is straightforward: it’s a mistake to ask who Rachel Brand is, because there is no “is.” To think otherwise is the fundamental attribution error.

When she decided to join the Trump administration and the Jeff Sessions Justice Department, Brand radically changed her situation. Specifically, she overcame whatever qualms she may have felt about Trump, qualms shared by many conservatives. (After the election, I posted on why those qualms are justified.) Eyes wide open, she joined an administration that puts a premium on personal loyalty to a narcissistic president who takes everything personally. She placed herself in an environment where the abnormal is the new normal. It’s hard to believe she did it with the intention of slowing down the president’s hectic velocity – her background is, as Eric Levitz writes, “a bit more partisan – and decidedly more right-wing – than Rosenstein’s.” Precisely if she is a person who takes her commitments seriously, signing on to the Trump team is a loyalty commitment that, day in and day out, will challenge her commitment to the rule of law. Neither past behavior nor perceived character can predict how she will manage that challenge. If the psychologists are right, she cannot predict it herself.

In my earlier essay on serving in the Trump administration, I warned that “Once you are inside, your frame of reference changes. … You see that many of the people you’re working with are decent and likable. You tell yourself that decent people like these wouldn’t do anything indecent. … And above all, you reassure yourself of your own decency because you can contrast yourself with the real radicals, the true believers. They’re right down the hall.”

It doesn’t matter if you are what moralists of my generation like to call a “person of integrity” – a person whose principles harmonize with her conduct. Years ago, in the wake of the Enron-era corporate scandals, the law school and business school worlds endured a predictable outbreak of academic conferences on integrity. Churlishly, I pointed out that you can harmonize your principles and your conduct by changing your principles just as easily as by changing your conduct. That too is one of the basic teachings of social psychology: we often reduce cognitive dissonance between our principles and our conduct the easy way, by unconsciously modifying our principles so they rationalize our conduct.

Of course it is comforting to know that a public official is an admirable person and not an opportunist or a scoundrel. But blind faith that persons of character will rescue us is faith in an illusion. Look to the situation, not to the person.

Image: Wikimedia Commons