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Impossible Numbers

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Going Bad, Babs Seed, and the Hostile Attribution Bias · 4:13pm April 14th

Because writers feed on flaws and conflict, and because a great way to make some is to have a character go in cockeyed, I was looking up cognitive biases. This one caught my eye:

Bad Seed! Now in 3D!

For those curious, a summary:

Hostile attribution bias, or hostile attribution of intent, is the tendency to interpret others' behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.[1][2][3] For example, a person with high levels of hostile attribution bias might see two people laughing and immediately interpret this behavior as two people laughing about them, even though the behavior was ambiguous and may have been benign.

The term "hostile attribution bias" was first coined in 1980 by Nasby, Hayden, and DePaulo who noticed, along with several other key pioneers in this research area (e.g., Kenneth A. Dodge), that a subgroup of children tend to attribute hostile intent to ambiguous social situations more often than other children.[1][2] Since then, hostile attribution bias has been conceptualized as a bias of social information processing (similar to other attribution biases), including the way individuals perceive, interpret, and select responses to situations.[4][5] While occasional hostile attribution bias is normative (particularly for younger children), researchers have found that individuals who exhibit consistent and high levels of hostile attribution bias across development are much more likely to engage in aggressive behavior (e.g., hitting/fighting, reacting violently, verbal or relational aggression) toward others.[3][6]

In addition, hostile attribution bias is hypothesized to be one important pathway through which other risk factors, such as peer rejection or harsh parenting behavior, lead to aggression. For example, children exposed to peer teasing at school or child abuse at home are much more likely to develop high levels of hostile attribution bias, which then lead them to behave aggressively at school and/or at home. Thus, in addition to partially explaining one way aggression develops, hostile attribution bias also represents a target for the intervention and prevention of aggressive behaviors.[3]

What's curious is that, though this feels like exactly the sort of thing you could explore in PonyWorld, canonically I don't think they've ever taken advantage of it.

See, what puts this specific theory on the causes of bad behaviour at odds with the one shown in MLP:FiM is that, as far as I'm aware, most of its redeemed ex-antagonists start off as neglected rather than abused.

Let's consider the main examples. Unless you want to spin a theory for how Celestia treated her, Sunset's rage against the sun owed more to her own greedy motives (and, implied by the ending of the first movie, her failure to understand friendship from personal experience). Discord was explicitly said to have never experienced it, and it's not hard to imagine that Trixie struggled against her own egotism before she could get anywhere socially. Gilda might've been a contender, except Griffonstone is more apathetic than outright abusive. Even Starlight and Stygian felt abandoned (and implicitly slighted) rather than directly mistreated. It's a mostly passive trend.

"Give me the cue already! This is supposed to be my moment on my show which I'm paying for!"
"Whatcha talkin' 'bout? You ain't payin' for nothin'."
"And whose fault is that? Not mine!"

The two main exceptions I can think of are Diamond Tiara - with "Crusaders of the Lost Mark" having her mother's status obsession and put-downs be the crucial factor - and Babs Seed - who was bullied in Manehattan and came to Ponyville to get away from all that.

Even then, the way it plays out is... probably a bit too off-course to make this particular mark work. Let's try it anyway!

Diamond Tiara first.

Oh, and the specs.

In the interests of staying on-topic, I'm not going to get on my soapbox and complain about how late and retconny the inclusion of Spoiled Rich was (the principle at least could've worked for me), so let's just focus on the logic of what I'm calling the "Hostile Attribution Bias Theory of Bullying". Superficially accurate her behaviour might be (bullied by her mother, therefore bullies the CMCs in turn), but Diamond doesn't actually fit the conditions required for this specific bias I'm talking about*.

* Taking this opportunity to make clear that I'm not judging the episode on the basis of "it doesn't fit my pet theory/obsessions": I intend this discussion more as an intellectually neutral compare and contrast than as a personal episode review. Though I can't guarantee the latter won't poke its nose in here and there.

See, the prediction of Hostile Attribution Bias would be that Diamond Tiara is abused by her mother, learns to expect or interpret other ponies' behaviour generally as hostile in its intent, interacts with the CMCs, and - for example - sees their attempts at being polite as an attack on her, to which she "retaliates" by being rude and aggressive. That's quite different from how she's presented: simply as a kind of social snob who (e.g. in "Ponyville Confidential") interprets their concerns for others as a sign of weakness.

I suppose you could mould these symptoms into shape by saying she's offended by their presumption of equality and social closeness, and there's something to that. All the same, there's still a reactive psychological difference between seeing someone as an aggressor who must be defensively rebuffed, and seeing someone as an inferior who can be humiliated with impunity.

So I don't think Diamond Tiara fits this specific mould very well, despite the obvious potential there for an intergenerational cycle of abuse (which has now been cut off - at least in theory - by her turnaround, but you get the idea).

Babs Seed now!

For the purposes of this discussion, Babs Seed is far more interesting, as she comes closest to the clearest expression of the Hostile Attribution Bias.

It doesn't actually work in execution, though, because the logic of the plot frames her decision as more an appeasement strategy (and not one that I think makes a ton of sense, since it means actively hanging around with her aggressors rather than avoiding them). But it comes darn close.

Unlike Diamond Tiara, Babs Seed is implied to have been bullied by her peers rather than her family, though that alternative fits too as a potential cause and shaper of the Hostile Attribution Bias (especially if it's so bad that she had to be sent away from the city to get some relief). Once she arrives in Ponyville, the CMCs make some insensitive comments about her lack of cutie mark and try over-enthusiastically to recruit her, which also fits the bill: we know the CMCs don't mean anything by it, but it'd be easy for Babs Seed to interpret it as passive-aggressive. Finally, the Sugar Lump Rumps come along and contribute their own, more obviously aggressive, brand of mistreatment.

And yes, that is what I'm calling Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon.

"Silveeeerrr! Pleeeaaase! Tone it down before ponies start speculatiiiiiiing!"

Here's where I think the episode loses its way a bit, and I think I can make some of the reasons (for why I think that) more obvious by imagining an alternative way of playing it out from that point on.

One that broadly fits the flow of the episode, but which is more consistent with the Hostile Attribution Bias.


  • Instead of siding with her worst bullies against the relatively harmless CMCs (in a weird attempt at a long-term appeasement strategy), Babs Seed snaps and bullies the Sugar Lump Rumps. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon - initially outraged and then outright intimidated - back off. The CMCs keep Babs Seed around out of respect, but Babs - having now snapped - gets less patient and more aggressive towards them, especially if they're still prodding her with the CMC recruitment talk.
  • Babs terrorizes the CMCs all week, but instead of appearing to sadistically enjoy it, she's just mad, mad, mad. After all, she's doing this because she thinks she's being attacked.
  • The CMCs get tired of her nonsense, except it turns out Babs has also been bullying Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon when bumping into them around town as well. For one time only, they get the idea to join forces and take revenge on Babs (after all, Diamond Tiara persuaded them to conduct unethical behaviour once already, back when she was running the newspaper - or, if you think they won't fall for her tricks again or trust Diamond Tiara with a revenge scheme, have Silver Spoon suggest the idea and point out the logic of getting Babs to back off and think twice).
  • The float scene happens, but instead of Applejack randomly bringing up the truth behind Babs' visit halfway through, have the (crisis of conscience) CMCs change their minds at the moment of truth, then bring in Applejack afterward - once they've explained themselves - to reluctantly reveal the real reason why Babs was in Ponyville, since it's gotten to this stage.

    • Optional whether or not the Sugar Lump Rumps stick around or bail before this point, and/or change the ending to something more in tune with the bullying moral. Say, by having either the CMCs or the Sugar Lump Rumps wonder about e.g. Diamond's own bullying (hinting at the abuse her mother may or may not have been giving her)... even if the Sugar Lump Rumps do ultimately reject it and preserve the status quo.
  • Actually fit the moral of trusting adults with bullying issues by having Applejack take Babs aside, reassure her, and ask her to give Ponyville and the CMCs another chance. That way, she can let her guard down and part on better terms.

OK, OK, I gotta disclose my biases now: I'm not a fan of this ending at all. Or this screenshot. Or this ending with this screenshot.

In my defence, I'm not just suggesting all this as a (futile) attempt to "fix" an episode that I don't think worked all that well.

More broadly, concepts like the Hostile Attribution Bias seem to me very good fits for the idealistic world of My Little Pony, partly because of the real-world genius bonus of psychological study*, but also partly because they make the rehabilitation of bad souls more believable. People know about cycles of abuse within families, or about kids lashing out at their tormentors. If you want to tell stories about understanding (and hopefully helping) antagonists if not outright villains and how they end up that way, then this sort of insight is your bread and butter.

* And what's most social stuff if not an everyday, amateur, casual attempt at psychological study?

Just don't try it on Pinkie. Your sanity will thank me later.

Turning to fanfiction, I wonder how often you could find that bias played out in a story? I don't mean the more general "cycle of abuse" or "lashing out" ideas, though they're good components; I mean the specific criteria of Hostile Attribution Bias. That almost-paranoid and defensive learned social response of treating even neutral or friendly behaviour as somehow an act of aggression, to which one lashes out in turn.

That implies an obvious backstory of being bullied by someone they spend a lot of time with (family and school peers being the classic examples), and then an obvious remedy of spending more time in a friendlier environment. Learning to let one's guard down and give others more of the benefit of the doubt.

"Do that, and we're... golden!"

At which point, I have to wind this blog post down, because I'm not really familiar enough with pony fanfiction to comment on broader trends. Still, it's the sort of theory I'd like to include in my own work going forward. Especially since it seems like a natural way both to gain audience sympathy and to structure a redemption arc.

And to figure out what makes people tick, of course.

That's all for now. Impossible Numbers, out.

"'nd N'W y'r r'dy t' b'nd 'nd l'rn ov'r y'r sh'sh'tr'sh sh'lly qu'rksh!"


"Really? Do you hafta psycho-analyze every durn thing ponies do?"

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Comments ( 5 )

OK, OK, I gotta disclose my biases now: I'm not a fan of this ending at all. Or this screenshot. Or this ending with this screenshot.

If I'd remembered this screenshot, I'd be right there with you. Geez, that's kinda terrifying to look at.

Otherwise, I applaud the local deduction into this psychological analysis of Hostile Attribution Bias and how it could pertain to FiM. Which, yeah, they did tend to get awfully narrow with antagonists' depths, motives and redemptions, didn't they? I can guarantee the Story Editor and writer on "One Bad Apple" certainly didn't look into these kind of psychological behaviours like this, that's for darn sure. I'll concede that on the schedules the show permitted the specific behaviours that would indicate this kind of Bias would be hard to implement and make work, requiring actual logical thought beyond "bullied! or tragic backstory! or just always evil Because Script!". A pity, you made a compelling case here.

Myself, the reconstruction above does trip a little towards the end – there are a few points that only work when the audience knows the outcome in advance – but it's a solid quick fix of the major points. Only major thing left is the matter of the tradeoff of losing the "Babs Seed" song. :rainbowwild:

As for in fanfiction, my own sample is still more limited than is ideal, but I don't think this sort of thing has put in enough appearances to qualify as any sort of trend. I see this sort of behaviour in the odd fic and with peripheral characters, but it's by no means any kind of hot possibility lots of people gravitate towards, I don't think.


My naivety might be just because it's a highly specific bias, and the more general "cycle of abuse" and "lashing out in anger" themes would occur more naturally on their own than this list of criteria combined. That said, I don't think those two themes occur very often either, not in canon. The best example I can think of for the latter - off the top of my head - might be Tempest from the movie, whose backstory involved being shunned by her community.

If I remember right, that is, because there might've been more to it than that, or else I might be misremembering.

I dunno. A lot of this might make for a good novel, where you could meander and even switch to different character perspectives to spend time with the idea. Scripts are a different animal, complete with different construction needs. Delivering something functional on a deadline is your actual bread and butter there.

For something as abstract and exaggerated as a cartoon I'd also make sure to read up on how conflict works in scripts, where you're gonna be half dependant on line delivery maybe even more than literally depicting what characters do on screen, long before trying to wind real world psychology into it. For one thing abstracting something means you're working with archetypes, to which you can attribute certain behaviours and have them fit, sure, but that's not the same as a character specifically mapping to a real world condition. For another there's the danger of presuming familiarity with academia automatically translates to familiarity with those conditions. At the least, I'd make sure there was someone with actual professional experience on hand before attempting to map abstract cartoon characters to this sort of thing.

Author Interviewer

wait, you mean that's like... a syndrome? not just depression or low self-esteem talking? c_c "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity" isn't just a pithy quip but a mantra for warding off mental illness? wtf is with the human brain


I think you're misinterpreting me a little. My point isn't that shows/stories should get technical or outright documentary-like.

(Cautionary tale: compare the public misunderstanding of OCD with the actual Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, as well as with the easily confused Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and you'll get a good idea why I think that'd be a bad - or at least risky - idea).

But I do think that the logic of existing tropes can be tweaked to fall more in line with stuff like this. The Hostile Attribution Bias was just an example, as I don't think you'd have to change the overall flow and structure of "One Bad Apple" all that much to bring it more into line with the concept.


I doubt it re: the quip coming from this specifically. More accurately, this is a cognitive bias that happens to be most expressed among a subgroup of the population with a history of aggression or abuse.

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