As a lifelong student of psychology, when the principles of human behavior spring to life around me, I typically respond with equal parts interest and glee. But a few weeks ago, I was on the receiving end of a psychological phenomenon that was slightly more upsetting.
It was a Monday morning in the Midwest. Waking up exhausted in my hotel room, I was sure I was coming down with a cold. On my way to a client meeting, I decided to grab breakfast in the hotel lounge. A depressing CNN segment was playing on TV, so I asked the only other person in the room — a rather imposing man in a baseball hat — whether he’d mind watching the Today Show instead. “I like the Today Show,” he responded, and I changed the channel.
A few seconds later, Baseball Hat Man stood up and stomped over to me. “I see how it is,” he snarled, wagging his finger in my face, “let’s just watch what YOU want to watch. Let’s make this YOUR PERSONAL TV ROOM!” I could feel my body entering fight or flight mode. Heart racing, I stammered, “But you just told me you liked the Today Show.” “No! I told you that I DON’T like the Today Show! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” After aggressively staring me down for another few seconds, he turned on his heel and walked away. I couldn’t believe what had just happened (and as someone who has been labeled a people pleaser, the incident ruined the better part of my day).
Of course, there was a simple explanation for our miscommunication: because my head was congested, I hadn’t heard him correctly. But did Baseball Hat Man give me the benefit of the doubt? No way! In a split second, he just knew that at my core, I was a TV hijacking narcissist. Indeed, when people around us behave in surprising or upsetting ways, we humans become split-second psychologists, quickly piecing together information to identify a reasonable cause. There are generally two explanations — we can decide their behavior was caused by a personal characteristic or something about the situation they were in. When I changed the channel, for example, it was either because I was a horrible person or because something in the environment influenced my behavior.
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Research shows that when judging others, we tend to overestimate the influence of personal factors and underestimate the influence of situational ones. This phenomenon, called the Fundamental Attribution Error, was first discovered by psychologists Edward Jones and Victor Harris. They asked participants to read either a pro- or anti-Fidel Castro essay supposedly written by another student. They told half the participants that the essay reflected the student’s true opinions and the other half that they’d assigned the stance to the student. When participants were asked to guess the essayist’s true beliefs, their judgments were shocking: even when the pro-Castro stance had been assigned, participants still believed the essay reflected their true attitudes. They ignored the situational explanation and invented a personal one.
Especially when our personal explanations for others’ behavior are incorrect, it begs the question: why do we fall victim to the Fundamental Attribution Error? In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow," Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains that our brains alternate between two information processing systems: System 1, which operates quickly and automatically, and System 2, which involves more deliberate thought. Because our brains like to use the least effort possible, we default to System 1 — and when analyzing people’s behavior, jumping to conclusions is much faster than analyzing the situation. This doesn’t make us bad people — with Baseball Hat Man for example, despite some clear anger management issues, he probably just suffered from the universal ailment of being human.
Let’s turn this around for a moment: other people's System 1 thinking can also exact serious damage on our reputations. I once coached an executive struggling to turn his team around: morale was low and performance was slipping. When I interviewed his employees, they interpreted his aloof body language — slumping in his chair, crossing his arms, pacing around the room — as a sign of his aloofness towards them. In reality, he suffered from debilitating lower back pain. This body language had nothing to do with his personal feelings about his team — on the contrary, he truly cared about them (we’ll come back to what he did next in a moment).
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But our stunning errors when observing one another pale in comparison to the errors we make when judging ourselves. Among other mistakes, we conveniently attribute our successes to personal factors but rationalize our failures with situational ones. Social psychologist Richard Nisbett once supervised a student who’d spent time in prison. The other prisoners, he said, universally blamed the situation for their actions, up to and including murder: “I tell the guy behind the counter to give me everything in the till and instead he reaches under the counter. Of course I had to plug him.” Of course he did.
And lest we conclude that these mistakes are just the stuff of crooks and felons, we see countless examples in the business world. In 2001, Sam Waksal, an unquestionably brilliant immunologist, made a series of illegal decisions surrounding ImClone, the pharmaceutical company he founded in 1984. For his crimes, which included jettisoning $5 million in stock prior to a disappointing FDA announcement, Waksal served five years in federal prison.
But when asked to explain his behavior, Waksal predictably attributed his crime to a momentary lapse in judgment, remarking “it is very difficult for someone who thinks [he] does good things for society to be led away, in handcuffs, and thought about as a common criminal.” But according to sources, Waksal had a pattern of cutting corners, like fudging credentials and falsifying data: the reasons for his behavior were likely more personal than situational, but the Fundamental Attribution Error likely prevented him from considering that possibility. After all, most people feel their behavior is generally quite reasonable in any given set of circumstances.
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Here are three suggestions to avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error.
When observing others, consider the situational explanation. I once worked with a client who spent a great deal of energy inventing conspiracy theories about her boss. Largely due to a lack of evidence, I’d often ask, “What’s another equally possible but less evil reason for your boss’s behavior?” For example, if he’d passed her in the break room without saying hello, he was more likely distracted by a problem than deliberately ignoring her. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book, "Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard," they argue that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. So the next time someone upsets you, ask yourself whether there’s a plausible situational explanation. Occasionally, your initial reaction will be right, but probably less often than you think.When observing yourself, ponder the personal explanation. In my research for my new book on self-awareness, I’ve learned that highly self-aware people are less likely to blame their behavior on the situation and more likely to take ownership — especially when things go wrong. In particular, they tend to define the kind of person they want to be and measure their actions against that yardstick. For example, if I vow to spend more time with my family but decide to take an emergency work call over the weekend, instead of telling myself I didn’t have a choice, I might ask if it was the right choice. The great Peter Drucker once said that to manage ourselves, we must have a clear answer to the question: “what kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning” and make our choices accordingly. When others are observing you, try a little self-disclosure. Have you ever felt misunderstood? Perhaps you’ve made a decision for one reason and people invent another? The good news is that you can combat conspiracy theories by doing one simple thing: let your guard down a little. The more other people know about your motives, thought processes and personal history, the more they will give you the benefit of the doubt. My client with the back pain, for example, came clean to his team about his health problems — reinforcing his intentions and apologizing for any mixed messages. His team immediately appreciated his honesty, and once they had a window into his reality, they were much more forgiving.
Sociologist and author Brené Brown said it perfectly: “if you think dealing with issues like…vulnerability [isn’t] worthwhile because there are more pressing issues…you are sadly, sadly mistaken.” After all, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, it paves the way for you to be truly understood.