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I Know What You Did (But Not Why)

Bias easily causes us to make this common error.

Ashish_Choudhary /Pixabay
Source: Ashish_Choudhary /Pixabay

Social psychology includes the study of the reasons people do dopey stuff. For instance, take the common attribution error.

Perhaps you betrayed me because your personality is deeply flawed. At least that's how I might see it at first. But when I now and then do something similarly hurtful, I know it's because of the way I was raised to perceive things, social pressure, having had a really bad day, because I thought you wouldn't care, and so on.

It's an easy thinking error to make, of course. I know I didn't choose to behave like a jerk out of the blue, and certainly there are a batch of reasons that help explain my atypical behavior (even if it happens often enough to be somewhat typical by now). But you, well, you clearly could not have good enough reasons to explain what you did. You're just thoughtless at best, but more likely you're mean and selfish and don't like me.

A thorough and fascinating discussion of the fundamental attribution error is laid out in The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others by Daniel R. Stalder. Stalder is an award-winning social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His approach in this book seems unusual to me in that he includes information about how he has responded to online readers' criticisms (by trying not to sound condescending, not repeating the same points, including more anecdotes to amplify research results, and more).


1. As confident as we tend to be when we make snap judgments, we may never know for certain why someone did any particular thing. You can reduce your bias by becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing.

2. The fundamental attribution error (FAE) ignores context, but only when we're judging other people. We protect our own ego and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, in part because we know more about our own motivations and circumstances.

3. Many people are prone to over-generalizing, which leads to inaccurate judgments like this common one: "Men are (whatever) and women are (a different whatever)." Though studies show that we are more alike than different in many ways, such stereotypes linger, causing many attribution errors.

4. People are unpredictable from situation to situation. If someone acted a certain way in a particular context, we cannot with certainly expect the same behavior when the circumstances differ.

5. A question such as "Where are you from?" can appear aggressive (or be experienced as a microaggression). You may believe it is obvious why you are being asked this, that it is racist or otherwise hostile. Yet assuming that your immediate interpretation is obvious could actually be incorrect. We can't read other people's minds. ("But her intent was obvious!" is a snap judgment.)

6. A lot of anger, including that felt by raging drivers, is caused by the fundamental attribution error. When a driver attributes blame to another driver who is perceived to be in the wrong, nasty and violent incidents may follow. Yet studies have found that many drivers are able to ”explain away" their own driving infractions. (See my previous blog post about anger. )

7. This last point is one of my own: Keep in mind that understanding doesn't automatically indicate that forgiveness is due. When someone has committed inexcusably negative actions, understanding may be the first step toward whatever comes next. Understanding may be a mitigating factor in judging the malefactor, or it may be useful in arranging circumstances or environments to help prevent similar actions by that person or others. Understanding is never wasted.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel