There is this problem: When I cut someone off on the road while driving, I see it as a mistake – something I would not normally do, something that happened due to the circumstances. Yet when someone else cuts me off in traffic, he is a jerk. I question his judgment, his moral character, and if I am in a bad mood, his existence.
Driving is not the only place this can happen. This is something we do regularly on a daily basis. We look at our own good behavior as a result of our good character and we see our negative actions occurring due to circumstances we were in at the time. “Normally, I would not have acted that way, but because of (fill in the blank), I acted poorly.”
Unfortunately, we do not give other people these same breaks. We are more likely to assign poor character traits as the reason for someone else’s bad actions. We are less likely to look at the circumstances playing a role in their behavior. We do this with people we don’t know: the driver who cut us off; with people we may be predisposed against – a co-worker we think isn’t pulling his/her weight; or even with someone we care about deeply – a partner that we believe is not doing his/her share of the housework.
I have been paying attention to these types of thoughts within myself and in others for the last few months. I know we all have a bias towards our own way of looking at things, but I had not realized these biases could be so subtle and pervasive. Then a few weeks ago, I went to a seminar titled, “How to Deal with Difficult People”. A segment of the presentation focused on this way that we value our own behavior and tend to devalue the actions of others. The psychological term is Fundamental Attribution Error. We are more likely to attribute other people’s poor behavior to their character and personality, rather than looking at any situational factors that could be playing a role. The error is so prevalent in our thought processes that they call it fundamental.
So, what can we to do if this way of thinking is so closely tied to who we are as social beings? One thing that can help (at least with the people we know) is to pay attention to whether their actions are consistent over time, or if there is something different or distinct going on. If they are ‘acting out of character,’ the situation they are in may be playing a large role in their current behavior.
There are times when we feel we should question another’s judgment and character. Yet, it can be valuable to give them the benefit of the doubt, unless we know more about the circumstances they are in and until we see them acting in a variety of situations.
A good way to proceed is to look at someone else’s actions as being both part of who they are, as well as the situation they are in. We will also do better in our self-valuation when we look at our own actions as coming from who we are, as well as the situations in which we find ourselves.
Reggie E., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.