Beware the Fundamental Attribution Error
Have you ever been driving along, minding your own business in rush-hour traffic when another car came out of nowhere and cut you off making you slam on your brakes? Maybe you thought some colorful variant of “What a selfish jerk!” and fantasized briefly about pulling a rock out of your pocket and hurling it at the offending driver’s rear window. If so, you may have been victim to what’s known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).
The FAE is the all too human tendency to overestimate the role of someone else’s personality or character on their behavior, while underestimating the influence of external factors. In simpler terms, we’re quick to assume that the reason someone acted in a jerky way is, quite simply, that they’re a jerk, without considering what might have been going on behind the scenes that might have led them to act as they did in that moment.
Think about it: maybe the other driver was in an urgent rush to get to an important doctor’s appointment; or maybe he was running late to pick up his young daughter from school; or maybe the person just really needed to get to a bathroom! We often forget that circumstances can play a significant role in shaping how people act. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle without all of the pieces.
So why should you care about the Fundamental Attribution Error? Well, understanding it and being aware that you’re vulnerable to it can help you become a more empathetic and compassionate person. By reminding ourselves to give others the benefit of the doubt and consider the bigger picture, we can also avoid jumping to conclusions that lead to anger or rage and trigger impulsive and risky behavior, like throwing that aforementioned rock (both literally and metaphorically).
Let’s not forget that, many times, we are guilty of the very same types of infractions that we call others out for. However, when we do it, we tend to attribute our own mistake solely to the extenuating circumstances. After all, who among us has never briefly double-parked or blocked a stranger’s driveway because we were in a jam and couldn’t find a parking spot and we were only going to be there for a minute?
#PsychologyNerd #MindMatters #EmpathyMatters #CognitiveDistortions