Baked babies, lobbyists, and the fundamental attribution error

A score of infants die every year because parents forget that they are strapped into their car-seats. You can think about that as a problem with the parents, or with the car-seats. You can ask why the parents were so neglectful, or why the car-seats weren’t equipped with alarms.

Hilzoy offers a useful take on the baby-baked-in-the-back-of-the-car problem.

If, she asks, you were one of the corporate executives who told his lobbyists to fight the proposal to make it mandatory for to equip car seats with $40 devices to warn the driver if the engine is off and there’s a baby in the carseat, or if you were one of the lobbyists who carried out those orders, and then you read the horrific details of what happens between fifteen and twenty-five times a year &#8212 mostly to parents not otherwise neglectful &#8212 how could you live with yourself?

Good question. It has two answers.

One is that the adversarial ethic of the courtroom is now widely accepted: just as a lawyer has an obligation to defend a murderer, a corporate executive is thought to have an obligation to defend corporate practices that horribly kill infants. Steven Bainbridge is within the mainstream of thinking among corporation-law professors in claiming that executives in such a situation have no right to let their personal moral beliefs interfere with their efforts to make as much money for their stockholders as possible. Defending the morally indefensible is part of their jobs.

The other answer is that, if you salary depends no not seeing a moral problem, you’re very likely not to see it.

The way Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten reported the story is instructive. He focuses heavily on the parents, and on explaining how their horrible mistakes could have been made by sane, decent, responsible people. Toward the end of his 8,000-word story, Weingarten devotes 300 words to explaining the technical, marketing, and political reasons so few cars come equipped with such cheap and simple devices. He reports:

The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids’ Transportation Safety Act &#8212 which requires safety improvements in power windows and in rear visibility, and protections against a child accidentally setting a car in motion &#8212 originally had a rear seat-sensor requirement, too. It never made the final bill; sponsors withdrew it, fearing they couldn’t get it past a powerful auto manufacturers’ lobby.

Note the absence of proper names. Which companies or trade associations did the lobbying? Who were the lobbyists? Who were the legislators who carried their water? It doesn’t seem as if Weingarten made any calls to the auto companies. That in turn suggests that, in his mind, the claim that the companies were effectively complicit in the deaths of these infants isn’t the sort of accusation that a reporter ought to take back to the accused for comment before running it.

The “human interest” of the story is all about the parents: their actions are scrutinized carefully and exhaustively. But the “powerful auto manufacturers’ lobby” has no name and no face, and therefore it seems to have no moral agency and no responsibility.

Weingarten wrote a terrific story, and I hope it wins him a bunch of prizes. (And it’s a reminder that blogging is no substitute for actual journalism, and that the current erosion of the economic base that supports shoe-leather reporting creates a major social and political problem.) It would be churlish of me to complain that he wrote the story that he wrote rather than some other story. But a cultural critic could reasonably say that the way the story was reported reflects an unhealthy imbalance in our moral reasoning, putting too much stress on individuals and not enough on situations and organizations.

Social psychologists have coined a technical term &#8212 “the fundamental attribution error” &#8212 for the common empirical mistake of seeing good and bad behaviors as reflecting the character of the people engaging in them when in fact they occur in circumstances where most people will act just the same way. (That’s not to say that the people in the Milgram experiment, for example, didn’t show moral weaknesses they ought to want to correct: merely that explaining their behavior in terms of their “authoritarian personality” misses the fact that most people defer to unjust authority given the proper circumstances.)

It’s natural to assume that anyone who leaves a kid locked in a car on a hot day must be deranged or terminally neglectful. But it appears not to be the case. The parents Weingarten reports on seem to be largely loving and responsible, and fell victim to what his headline calls a “fatal distraction.” American individualism, the great-granchild of the Puritan conscience, encourages us to make that sort of mistake. Individualism as a moral principle is helpful in getting people to take responsibility for their own actions. But individualism as an explanatory framework is harmful insofar as it leads us to try to fix the wrong problems.

Update Two readers ask the substantive question about whether the proposed mandate would have been cost-justified by the avoided deaths or cost-effective compared to other auto-safety measures. As both of them note, the answers to those questions wouldn’t be dispositive; these are peculiarly horrible deaths, so it’s worth spending more money to avoid one than it is to avoid a more typical auto-crash fatality.

The crude arithmetic doesn’t seem to favor the programs: 10 million cars/yr. x $40/car = $400 million/yr. If there are 20 deaths/yr. prevented (implausibly assuming perfect compliance and complete success) that would be $20m per prevented death.

But note two crucial assumptions:

1. That making car seats with alarms in mass production would cost $40 per seat more than the current car seats without alarms. The $40 cited is the retail price of a retrofitted unit made in relatively small volumes; surely it would be cheaper to make an alarmed seat than to make a seat and then make an alarm for it, and production runs in the millions ought to bring costs down very substantially compared to production runs in the thousands.

2. That every car comes with a car seat, as opposed to car seats being purchased only by families with infants. That’s a technical question to which I don’t know the answer; if you do, please let me hear from you. I don’t know what proportion of new cars are bought by families with car-seat-aged children, but making that adjustment to the cost estimate would greatly reduce cost-per-life-saved.

And yes, I really am committed the proposition that the numbers matter: if the cost were $1B to prevent one death, I’d be against spending the money.

Second update Bleg, and ye shall receive. A reader provides the key technical detail suggesting that the mandate wouldn’t have cost anything like $400m/yr:

All new cars are required to have build-in attachments for easy installation of car seats (LATCH, Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) and all new car seats are required to have this method of installation as an option. (They can also be attached with standard seat belts for use in older cars.) It seems like it would be relatively simple to use this as a way to send a signal to the car. The cost to car manufacturers is << $40- it's probably a couple bucks to install the required circuitry, just as the current cost of adding the LATCH anchors (two small pieces of metal per seat) to all cars is probably a few cents each. The cost would mostly fall on the car seat manufacturers, but since there are many fewer car seats sold than cars, the overall cost is much lower than your $400 million estimate.

If that’s right, then the cost argument goes away, and we’re left with absolutely no good reason for taking that provision out of the bill.

Thanks to all who wrote in on this.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: