Attributions are thoughts we have about others that help us make sense of why people do the things they do. Attributions answer the questions “Why did he do that?” and “Why did I do that?” When we go through the process of answering these questions, our brains are attempting to understand the causes of social behavior.
There are two types of attributions we make about others’ behavior:
When we make situational attributions, we believe their behavior is due to something in their situation: For example, our coworker might have been short with us, because s/he is tired or overworked.
Personality attributions are more about a person’s character. When we make these attributions, we believe the behavior is due to the person’s personality. Assuming that same coworker who was short with us is impatient or unkind is making a personality attribution.
Personality attributions are more enduring and long-lasting. Being impatient or unkind is a consistent way of being, compared to being tired or overworked, which may be temporary.
When I’m walking my dogs around the neighborhood, I wave and say hi to my neighbors who are in their yards or driving by. I want to create a friendly neighborhood environment, so I do this as much as I can.
Occasionally I get no response from my neighbors. I could make personality attributions about them and think they are mean or bad people who are not friendly due to their personality, or I could give them the benefit of the doubt and think about situational reasons they might not wave back at me. Perhaps they are distracted because they just got a phone call from their mom and learned she is not doing well. Maybe they are stressed at work and therefore distracted at home. Maybe they have earbuds in and literally did not hear me say hello.
Making situational attributions instead of personality ones about my neighbors makes me feel better since I do not think my neighbors are jerks, and makes my future communication with them better for the same reason.
Research has found that people tend to overestimate personality and underestimate the situation when making attributions, especially with people they do not know well. When we make attributions for people we know well and care about, this tendency flips. Think about your best friend. If they didn't call you back right away, would you think it is because they are rude or cold-hearted? Probably not. You’d think of the specific reasons they might not be able to call back because you know a lot about their situation. Maybe they're stuck in a meeting or caring for a loved one.
Andy Puddicombe reminded me of the importance of examining my own attributions while I was using his Headspace app. He said, “It is easy to praise or to blame others for their actions, but unless we know their motivation, we really know nothing at all.” He went on to say that not judging is a gift we can give to others.
Our brains are wired to make automatic judgments about others’ behaviors so that we can move through the world without spending too much time or energy on understanding everything we see. Sometimes we engage in more thoughtful, slow processing of others’ behaviors. You might recognize this as ruminating on what your friend or coworker said that bothered you or was out of character for them.
Awareness of this natural process is key to changing the way that we react to others’ behaviors and communication. This awareness and patience for others sets the stage for conscious communication.
It is a useful exercise to give others the benefit of the doubt by thinking about their situation, rather than jumping to personality attributions, but there are limitations to this approach. We do not always have time to get to know another’s situation, so making personality judgments tends to be quicker and more automatic, even if those types of judgments are less ideal.
Moving forward, I suggest taking a middle-of-the-road approach. Spend time perspective taking when you can, and be aware of the human tendency to make personality attributions when you can’t.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.