People make snap judgments all the time. That woman in the sharp business suit must be intelligent and successful; the driver who just cut me off is a rude jerk.
These instant assessments, when we attribute a person’s behavior to innate characteristics rather than external circumstances, happen so frequently that psychologists have a name for them: “fundamental attribution errors.” Unable to know every aspect of a stranger’s backstory, yet still needing to make a primal designation between friend and foe, we watch for surface cues: expensive pants—friend; aggressive driving—foe.
The fundamental attribution error is also termed as correspondence bias or attribution effect. In simple terms, when we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.
For instance, if someone cuts in front of you in line, your immediate reaction is, “This person is a complete jerk!”. But in reality, maybe he never cuts into lines and is doing it this time only because he is about to miss his plane, the one he’s taking to be with his great aunt, who is on the verge of death.
Interestingly, social psychologists have found that we make the fundamental attribution error (FAE) about other people but rarely ourselves. When we do things, we always have a good reason. It’s other people we see as defective. (FAE or not, other people are defective. If everyone was more like me, this world would be a much better place!)
A classic example is the person who doesn’t return your call. You could go the usual route and think, “He is an inconsiderate person and parents were right years ago when they said I should have dropped him as a friend.” But the fundamental attribution error would remind you that there might very well be other reasons why this person hasn’t called you back. Maybe he is going through major issues in his life. Maybe he is traveling for work. Maybe he honestly forgot.
However, if we all take a step back to recognize and accept the fundamental attribution error, we will feel dissatisfied far less often.
Most people are good and decent, subject to the same difficulties in life as you are. When they ignore us, or don’t say thank you when we hold a door open for them, or step on our feet and don’t apologize, or make nasty comments about our mothers, we must remember that they are simply fellow sufferers. Maybe they are just having a bad day.
So the next time someone says, “You know, you’re a real pain in the neck,” hold off on the usual reaction, which would be rage. The person may not be saying it because he’s a jerk who hates you, but because he just missed winning the lottery by one number. He may even deserve your sympathy 🙂