Passing judgment on those around us is human nature. We are continually making our own choices and observing the choices of others. We like to think we’re making the right decisions, and we often use ourselves as a benchmark for others. How can we feel good and “right” in our choices without passing judgment on others who think differently?
Humans have an innate tendency to justify our actions based on situational demands, but we aren’t always so tolerant of others. For example, if you need to make a phone call while sitting on the quiet car of a train, you probably rationalize that it’s because of an extenuating circumstance: your boss called with an emergency at work, or your child called and needs your help. It’s not because you’re inconsiderate or rude, right? Since you almost always follow and respect the rules, this situation is an exception. On the other hand, when you observe someone else making that phone call on the train, you are less likely to consider the circumstances and more likely to have an immediate reaction of annoyance and disgust. What a rude and inconsiderate person they must be!
This mix-up in our thinking has a name and has been studied extensively in social and cognitive psychology. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It means that we tend to over-emphasize an internal attribute to explain someone else’s behavior (e.g., that new person I met at the party was not very friendly to me, so they must be an unfriendly person) while under-emphasizing a situational explanation (that new person was not very friendly to me, maybe they are having a bad day). In other words, we tend to assume a person’s actions are based on the kind of person they are, rather than on the circumstances influencing them at a given time.
In this ever-changing world, we’re frequently being given a new set of rules to live by. Each day, we are forced to make choices about who we spend time with, where we spend that time, how close we get to each other, what’s safe and not safe. The decisions are endless, and they are constant. Mask or no mask? Indoors or outdoors? School or no school? Do I need to wipe down my Amazon packages or not? Can my kids hug their Grandma? Look at all those people in my neighbor’s backyard!
The fundamental attribution error affects how we justify our choices, and it affects how we judge the intentions of those around us. How can we feel good about the choices we make without constantly feeling at odds with those around us?
Well, it might not be possible all of the time. But the next time you feel upset by someone’s behavior, remember the Fundamental Attribution Error. Are you considering the situation, or are you jumping to conclusions about that person’s character? Imagine some different circumstances that might lead you to act in one way versus another. Do you have all the information? Maybe there is more to the story than you know. Becoming more aware of your own biases and errors in thinking can be uncomfortable at first and may make you doubt yourself. But that can be a good thing! Try giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, and you may find a more positive explanation for their behavior.