Have you ever noticed how many people around you are jerks? They butt into lines, pass on the wrong side, cheat on their taxes or their spouses, goof off at work, smother (or neglect) their children… the list is endless. Why are people so rotten?
It’s not as though you do those things. If you pass on the wrong side, it’s only because some idiot is doing the speed limit in the passing lane. You’d never have an affair unless your marriage was essentially over and you desperately needed comfort. If you take time off at work, it’s because you’ve been working super-hard for hours. When you let your children play by themselves, it’s because you know how important it is that they learn to be independent.
Too bad other people don’t have good reasons like this, isn’t it?
This way of thinking is so common to all of us that it’s been called the “fundamental attribution error”. In general, when we see someone do something, we assume that it’s representative of his or her character and downplay or ignore the effects of the situation. If Joe yells at his kid, we mentally subtract a few parenting skill points from our perception of Joe – even though we know that if we yell at our kid, it’s because she tried to flush the cat. Again.
I’m not making this up. Dozens of psychological studies have investigated this phenomenon, which is also called “correspondence bias”. One of the first, published in 1967, found that even when participants knew that a speaker had been told to express a certain opinion, they tended to believe the speaker agreed with the opinion. Another found that study participants who actually instructed other people to make flattering or derogatory remarks about them still felt the flatterers liked them more than the disrespectful ones did.
There are several reasons we make this kind of error. Sometimes we don’t know the full story. Sometimes we underestimate (or overestimate) the effects of various social pressures. Sometimes we don’t realize that the person we’re observing sees the situation differently than we do. Sometimes we assume that other people have the same attitudes we have.
Taking the fundamental attribution error into account is at least as useful in everyday life as in activism. If we make more accurate guesses about why people do what they do, we’ll be in a better position to make positive changes – but we’ll also cut the people around us as much slack as we cut ourselves. Not a bad idea.
(It’s also a stress reliever. When someone cuts in front of me in traffic, I tell myself she’s probably on her way to the emergency room. When a salesperson is rude, I remind myself that he could be going through a nasty divorce. It helps.)
So, next time Joe yells at his kid, look around for a wet, disgruntled cat. And next time you read that 72% of your community don’t care about renewable energy sources, ask yourself which issues are so important to those people that energy has been pushed down the list. You’ll be less frustrated, you’ll understand your peers better, and you’ll make smarter choices when trying to change their minds. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.