Remember that guy you passed in the hall last week? You said good morning to him, and he growled something unintelligible at you and rushed on. Man, that guy was a jerk, huh?
To be fair, you kind of snapped at that intern who walked in your office yesterday. Right? Okay, but that was different. You were up against a deadline and your car had just broken down. You had a right to be irritated. You’re not a jerk, you just had a bad day. Happens to everyone.
See what happened there?
We explain other people’s behavior, especially strangers, in terms of what kind of person they are. We explain our own behavior in terms of what our reasons are.
This bias is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, and it’s one of the biggest mental mistakes we make as humans. A good understanding of this error can change your entire outlook on humanity.
Because really, aren’t there always reasons for bad behavior – and aren’t those reasons usually hidden?
If a student fails to understand something, is it really just because she’s stupid? Maybe she’s distracted because her dog got sick yesterday, or because she’s running to a party right after class. Maybe she’s just not trying because her parents say girls are bad at this subject. Maybe she can’t read, and has been hiding it for years – or she’s clinically depressed – or her brain is fried after a full day of classes – or, or, or…
Reasons are not excuses, of course. If someone’s a jerk to you (or worse), you shouldn’t roll over and take it just because they have a reason. But understanding those reasons, or even guessing at them, can take you a long way toward humanizing other people.
This kind of thinking can be transformative. Suddenly, the lady who cuts you off in the parking lot might just be late for her son’s doctor appointment. The boss who yells at you might be struggling to cope with tremendous pressure from upper management. The literary agent who rejects you might (and probably does) think you’d have a real shot if you worked harder.
Understanding that people are shaped by their circumstances is the foundation of empathy, of forgiveness. It means looking at anyone, absolutely anyone, and thinking there but for the grace of God go I.
Who knew that cognitive psychology could be so liberating?
Tell me, have you ever had an “a-ha!” moment, where you realized what made someone act a certain way? Did it change the way you thought about them afterward?