For my hundredth blog post, I wanted to take the time to analyze one of my favorite things about people and that is one of our many psychological biases.
Specifically today I have found another bias that relates to our assumptions we place on people and the situations they fall into.
We tend to not see others in the same light we look at ourselves in.
If an individual is in some circumstance that they have become cornered in, we might say to ourselves, “I know how I would handle that situation and this person can’t do it because they lack the trait of X.”
When it comes to another person’s error, it is easier for us to place the blame on them and move on assuming we aren’t in that situation because we would have already implemented our too good to be true solution.
This type of assumption is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
The Error Explained
While some may not be familiar with this error, the explanation is in the name.
Our attribution of why something is the way it is, our assumption, is just that… an error in assumption.
The explanation of another person’s behavior versus our interpretation of our own behavior leads us to make more assumptions on others whereas our own problems and issues are much more complex.
I’ve visited this idea before that we make ourselves out to be three-dimensional beings while categorizing others as one-dimensional with perpetual traits.
If someone were to cut you off in traffic, you might assume it is because they are a bad driver or that they weren’t paying attention to the road.
In that split second when you get cut off, that assumption is made because we see ourselves in a different light assuring ourselves we wouldn’t have done the same.
In reality, they could have been signaling to switch lanes and are about to miss their turn. Sure they could have switched earlier, but maybe the cars behind you were not letting them in as they were not paying attention.
We can follow this circle of blame and find out who the real culprit was causing the whole mess, but the assumption that someone did X because they lack the trait of Y is much easier for us to process and accept.
Most of the time, our hostile assumptions don’t reflect what is actually happening and this causes us to start following this error more times than once.
So why does this happen in our minds?
Why the Fundamental Attribution Error Exists
Why we have this tendency to make assumptions is hard to say.
It’s understood that we see other people around us as one-dimensional because that is all they are to us and it’s easier to think that way, yet we can still understand the complexity of being a person.
Sure someone can be bad at something like holding a job and we can blame them for it, but if we were bad at holding a job, we will most likely have an explanation as to why that is.
We might say our last job didn’t offer the benefits it promised to us upon hiring or that our location doesn’t coincide with the experience and knowledge we are trying to implement in a job.
We justify ourselves and assume others won’t be able to do the same.
So even with our understanding that they are real people too with real problems, why does it become much easier for us to assume their traits and values?
This could be because we learn from others mistakes and to us, someone that we will probably never see again making a mistake assures us later on that we won’t do the same.
The same can be said about knowing beforehand the mistake that another individual makes. We know the error they made is wrong so we can tell ourselves I told you so when witnessing their mistake occur.
Suggestion for change
In order to stop ourselves from this error we hold toward other persons, we need to understand why this happens.
We need to know that our situational awareness doesn’t cross into someone else’s life and we may have no right to make an assumption.
Knowing that our first hostile thoughts are to protect ourselves and our own image, we should simply assume we don’t know enough about the situation to make a hard concluding assumption.
Another way to understand this is to remember a time when you were judged as a one-dimensional person with concrete traits that made you appear to others as a certain type of person.
There could have been a time when your behavior to a stranger seemed harsh and hostile while you were caught in a bad mood on that particular day.
This is not to excuse yourself from blame, but to look for times when others placed a blame on you that was untrue or more situational than actual.
While the error itself isn’t the easiest thing to rid ourselves of, it is good to understand that even though in the back of our minds we perceive everyone as complex beings with their own problems, our assumptions may not always reflect this respect toward people’s problems.