What We See In Ourselves, We Can See In Others
The Fundamental Attribution Error references a tendency we have as humans to attribute another person’s action to their personality, often labeling them in the process. Meanwhile, our own actions are held to a different standard and attributed to our external situation or circumstances.
For example, we see someone cut in line way up ahead of us to get to the front of the line at the pharmacy. We might immediately think, “Who does this #[email protected]%&# think they are?!” We get upset and think they are a bad person. On the other hand, if we have a situation where we need to get our grandmother her heart medication, since she’s been unable to fill it for days due to quarantine protocols in her area. We rush to the pharmacist only to see a long, socially distanced, line ahead of us. In our fear, love, and concern for our beloved grandmother, we run up to the front of the line to plead with the pharmacist to expedite her refill. For them, we fill in the information gaps with assumptions about them and their inexcusable actions. For us, the situation is somehow different and our actions are justified.
In short, we attribute other people’s actions to their personality or some character flaw and our actions are based on the circumstances or situations at that time. They are inherently bad because of who they are and we are good people, placed in a bad situation causing us to behave in a way we normally wouldn’t.
Knowing this information and our tendency as human beings to do this, what does this mean and what do we do with this information?
It means we have an opportunity to embrace our humanity and, therefore, the humanity of others around us. We can step back and look more objectively at a person’s actions and seek to learn, understand, and empathize with them. By looking within ourselves and keeping the focus here, we see the moments where we acted a certain way or perceived the situation differently. This may have been because of our emotions or our circumstances based on what was happening at the time. Taking a more objective or third person view of these experiences allows us to have greater insights. We can begin to uncover how we went from point A to point B (or Not A, as neuroscientist Beau Lotto states). We also start to see how another person could do the same thing. This develops empathy which leads to compassion and understanding.
It takes a certain level of truthfulness with ourselves to help promote shifts and changes internally. When we do this, we begin to unlock the ability to be more open and willing to learn. The desire to learn and gain wisdom fosters our growth.
When we’re honest with ourselves, really looking at why we did what we did in the “heat of the moment”, we can better understand how other people act or respond similarly. As Adi Jaffe, Ph.D, states:
Treating people with compassion rather than contempt is far more beneficial to us as individuals and in the greater community.
The right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do. We have natural fears and preferences to keep us safe or offer protection. Our willingness to make shifts and changes, adapting to our circumstances, allows us to better navigate the world. Additionally, resisting our inclination to make assumptions also helps us as we progress through life. Learning why we lean a certain way or have specific tendencies helps us gain better insight about ourselves and the world around us. The Fundamental Attribution Error is one such tendency.
In order to overcome this tendency, we must look within ourselves and be honest with why we think and do the things we do. This internal exploration will allow us to question and uncover the “why’s” behind these questions. This is essential work we must all do. We do the work. Our work. To help create a better world for everyone.
As we do our work, let’s remember to keep our eyes on our own papers too!