When someone cuts you off in traffic, you think they’re an asshole. If you cut someone off in traffic, you think you’re in a hurry or there was plenty of room. You aren’t trying to be rude.
When someone is late to meet you, you think they’re inconsiderate and irresponsible. When you’re late to meet someone, you think about the alarm that didn’t go off, how your keys weren’t where you left them, and how all the traffic lights were red on the way over. Really, it’s not your fault. Anyone would have been late in your situation.
We think of our own negative actions as a result of circumstances that make what we do understandable. Meanwhile, we tend to attribute the actions of others to deficiencies of their character, disposition, or personality. This is known as the fundamental attribution error (also called the correspondence bias).
Some people might possibly be psychopaths who do crappy things to make others miserable, but most of us are normal people with reasons that we think justify what we do.
We all overestimate the effect of disposition and underestimate the role of the situation in explaining how others behave.
Why do we do this? In our own cases, we know what experiences lead up to any given action. We don’t get a chance to see the history of other people. And even if we’re told about their situation, we discount its effect on their overall behavior.
In our effort to understand the actions of others, we assume that since there’s no reason we can easily see, they must just be the kind of person who cuts people off in traffic. What an jerk.
When I learned about this bias, I began noticing everyone I know doing it. Even me. For just one of many examples, nearly every instance of road rage I’ve ever witnessed has involved someone accusing another driver of being an idiot or an asshole based on how they maneuver their car. Nevermind that they could be lost, confused, have missed their exit, or really be driving just fine and just happen to be annoying you.
The beautiful thing is that once I realized I was making such assumptions and judgments, a lot of my frustrations with the so called “flaws” of others eased. If anyone does something that irritates or angers me, I try to tell myself that they have their reasons and people don’t set out to be shitty. Thinking this honestly helps calm me down. For extra potency, I sometimes make up a story that explains their actions. It doesn’t even have to be a true story to help me feel sympathetic towards others. Sometimes it’s even fun just to tell myself the stories.
Taking a mental step back from assuming that everything people do is a result of their personal character is probably one of the most peace inducing mental acrobatics I’ve tried to date. Maybe you should give it a try too.
Photo credit: Silhouettes by Scott Pacaldo
Share the knowledge!