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Why We Don't Give Each Other a Break

Annoyed? Peeved? The fundamental attribution error explains it all.

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Academic psychologists will immediately recognize the phrase in my subtitle as a very important phenomenon in psychology. For others who may be less familiar with the fundamental attribution error (sometimes called correspondence bias or attribution effect), Wikipedia's simple definition reports that it "describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior.”

In other words: 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 example, 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 (or FAE, as I have never heard it called) 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 would be a person who doesn’t return your call. You could go the usual route and think, “He is an inconsiderate slob and my 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. (Maybe before you get all hot and bothered, you should check the obituaries, though if you're really the resentful sort, even death may not be enough to mollify you.)

Closely related to the FAE is the tendency we all have to take things too personally. Maybe you could call this the fundamental selfishness error, or the “all about me” effect. This describes the everyday experience of encountering people who don’t treat you just right, as the royalty you implicitly believe you are. The feeling we have of being disrespected is so common that we’ve shortened the word to “dissed.” Someone says something that you feel belittles you, or they ignore you or talk about food when you want to talk about sports. You’ve been dissed! Don’t they know who you are?

However, if we all take a step back to recognize and accept the fundamental attribution error, we will feel dissed 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.

More from Mark Sherman Ph.D.
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