Whenever a successful writer gets busted for “cheating,” the narrative always involves the collective wondering of why they would take such a risk. We saw this with the downfall of Jayson Blair and Johann Hari, and most recently with Jonah Lehrer. For example, Erik Kain called Lehrer’s actions “strange and baffling.” Curtis Brainard at CJR straight-up asks what’s on everybody’s mind: “Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?”
What’s interesting is that this question takes a noble view of the offender. The implication is always that the person got to the top on their merits, and then drastically changed their behavior due to situational pressures. People rarely consider that the offender might have risen to the top because they’re predisposed to bending rules or inhabiting the gray areas in an advantageous way. […]
Why assume that everything the offenders accomplished up until their downfall was based purely on virtuous actions?
Furthermore, research on the fundamental attribution error (FAE) predicts that people would not attribute the mistakes of somebody like Lehrer to situational pressures. The FAE describes the tendency to believe that a person’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation. […] Situational factors tend to be ignored, and that means when somebody cheats, we tend to assume that they have always been, and forever will be, a cheater.
Why then do writers tend to give Lehrer the benefit of the doubt by focusing the pressures of his situation? […] I think it’s fair to say that because of the nature of the industry most writers do have a personal interest in understanding why writers fabricate, how they should be judged, and what the consequences should be. […]
I think it’s worth mentioning Seth Mnookin’s recent post highlighting previously unknown errors made by Lehrer. Mnookin concludes by essentially saying that Lehrer is a cheater, and has always been a cheater.