Think about the last time a driver merged on top of you, or the last time a colleague was late to work, or a friend didn’t reply to your message.

What did you think about that driver, colleague, or friend?

Did you get angry, or frustrated?

Did you start to think negative things about them – that they are a careless driver, an unreliable colleague, or an unkind friend?

I don’t say this as a gotcha, I certainly have had many of the same thoughts myself. Also, you might be right – that driver really may be careless, your colleague may be a terrible person, or you may want to drop that friendship. What I do want to say, however, is that we should be very cautious before we do that. We often make attributions or create explanations about why people behave as they do. These attributions can be internal (like my colleague is late because he’s lazy) or environmental (my colleague is late because his family is sick).

What’s the problem?

We give ourselves far more grace than others.

If you cut in line, you’re rude. If I cut in line, it’s because I’m having a bad day.

If you don’t reply, you’re unreliable. If I don’t reply, I’m busy.

If you cut me off, you’re a reckless driver. If I cut you off, it’s because my family made me late for my job interview.

You get the idea.

Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error.[1] When other people behave poorly, we attribute that to their internal dispositions or traits. When we behave poorly, it’s because of environmental or situational factors.

What I want to quickly explore with you is 1) why we make these kinds of attributions, and 2) why believing in the best in people should be more than just an aphorism.

So why do we do it?

I think it might largely be a question of availability.[2] We have access to all of the information about ourselves – our internal states, our histories, what we are like as people, and our environment. But often with others we only see the immediate action. We don’t have context for their situation; we can’t see into their minds. When we see poor behaviour, then, it’s easy to attribute that to who someone is, not their situation.

It’s important to know attributions aren’t just negative, they can occur in a positive direction as well. Positive attributions can be just as dangerous as negative ones. When we succeed we tend to attribute it all to ourselves, not to the people who helped us succeed or luck. For example, if this blog gets 10 000 views (a boy can dream), I might attribute it to me being an incredible writer, not because a big social media personality shared the blog.

Believing the best in people

Our tendency to make allowances for ourselves that we don’t make for others means we need to be careful about our first reaction to other people’s behaviour. So (and here I step onto my soapbox) I think it’s important to be careful about what the way that we interpret other people’s behaviour. Try not to jump to assumptions about people’s character – withhold judgement until you have a better picture of the type of person they are and how they respond to situations. I freely acknowledge that I’m not always the best at this myself – especially with drivers in traffic. But I think at least recognizing that we have this cognitive bias is a great first step. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, a colleague is late to work, or a friend ignores you, pause for a moment. Don’t just jump to an emotional reaction. Think about other ways to interpret their behaviour. Believe the best in people should be more than just a pithy aphorism. Choose to give others the same grace you give yourself. You’ll be a better person for it.

 

 

[1] Lee Ross coined the term in: Ross, L. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10). New York: Academic Press, 1977. Since then a whole literature has developed from psychologists exploring this phenomenon.

[2] There are important background questions about what causes the fundamental attribution error (FAE), whether it can be better explained by another variable, to what degree the FAE is already explained by correspondence bias, and more, but I think we have sufficient evidence to say that minimally the phenomenon exists.