When someone cuts you off in traffic, what do you think about that person? When it happened to me yesterday, I made some choice observations about their character, their parentage and their upbringing. On the other hand, have you ever inadvertently drifted into someone else’s lane? Did you make the same observations about your own character? Of course not—you were momentarily distracted by something, or you had a lot of important thoughts on your mind as you planned your day, or a thousand other possible excuses.
It doesn’t stop when you get to the office. If you interrupt someone in her office and she is short with you, it’s because she’s a jerk; but when you do the same thing it’s because something’s going that requires your closest attention.
Both these examples illustrate one of the most common thinking mistakes we make, and one which has the greatest impact on social interactions. It’s called the fundamental attribution error. When we do something wrong, it’s because something in the situation caused us to react that way, but when someone else does something wrong, it’s because of some flaw in their character. When we do something right, it’s a result of our inherent superiority, but when someone else succeeds, it was luck, of course. In other words, we only pay attention to situational factors when it’s in our favor.
The phenomenon is not as perversely unfair as it seems; it’s a natural result of our evolution and perception. In prehistoric days, acts perceived as hostile were best met with immediate action; those who took the time to ponder their motivations probably didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes. It paid to be cognitively efficient, which is fast, but in today’s complex social world is also a euphemism for lazy thinking. If we can brand someone with a specific label, we “know” what to expect from them in the future without having to think too hard. Even today, we can perceive their actions but not the internal workings of their minds. When we act, we have information not only about our behavior and situation, but we also know what was going on in our minds that led to that behavior.
It matters because our perception of why people do things is usually more important that what they did. The attribution error can have serious consequences on all aspects of persuasive communication:
• Blaming others or ascribing sinister motives to them can poison relationships, particularly when confirmation bias is thrown into the mix. We form an initial judgment about another person and then we tend to notice only the evidence that supports our judgment. We notice the “rude” coworker’s terse replies but don’t pay attention to their pleasant communication.
• It leads to self-fulfilling predictions. If we expect poor behavior from others, we begin to act in ways that might encourage that behavior.
• It is the enemy of outside-in thinking which is at the heart of successful persuasion. It makes it more difficult to find out what motivates others and thus limits our persuasive abilities. Also, when we can’t persuade the other person, it must be because they’re not smart enough to see it our way, not because we need to try harder to improve our message or approach.
• In negotiations, it can foster lose-lose behaviors because of our deep-seated sense of fairness which drives us to punish others for their behaviors even at a cost to ourselves.
• In management, it can foster simplistic people solutions. A subordinate isn’t acting the way we want them to? Replace the subordinate rather than examining the conditions about the situation and system that contribute to the behavior.
What can you do about it?
The first antidote to the attribution error is awareness. If you know you are subject to it (and you are), you can bring it into surface consciousness; remind yourself to think twice before reacting to another’s behavior. Work on being cognitively effective instead of cognitively efficient.
Try to mentally put yourself in the other’s position and think about how you would react in that situation if the positions were reversed. In his excellent book, Just Listen, Mark Goulston calls it an “empathy jolt”. Just ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were him right now?” It works because it helps you empathize with the other person, and as Goulston says, anger and empathy can’t exist in the same place at the same time.
When someone does something that appears to be hostile, try to think of alternative explanations. Most times, when people do something that appears directed at you, they probably haven’t been thinking about you at all. Even if you can’t think of alternative explanations, the mental activity will engage your pre-frontal cortex and reduce the influence of your limbic system, so your emotions won’t be in control. Stephen Covey calls this approach his 5th habit: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”
Give others the benefit of the doubt if possible. One of the difficult things about cognitive biases such as this is that even when we are aware of them, we don’t correct for them as much as the situation warrants. So, in some cases, you might want to err on the side of understanding if the risks and costs aren’t too high. A friend of my father’s told me last year that he was with him when Dad gave $20 to a man who had approached them with a sad story about losing his wallet and being from out of town. When the man left, Dad’s friend told him it was most likely a scam, to which he replied, “I’d rather lose the money than take the chance that his story was true and I didn’t help him.”
When you compare my reaction in the first part of this article to this attitude, it’s clear that I still have a long way to go; but in these stressed and difficult times, it’s an ideal worth keeping in mind.