None of us are immune from the Fundamental Attribution Error – chalking up the behavior of others to their character rather than the situation in which they find themselves. In this episode, we tease out the details of this common bias, its negative effects, and several strategies to address and work through it.
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The core tenant of fundamental attribution error;
- We all have people who bug us, get under our skin, and rub us the wrong way. Sometimes it’s acute. And sometimes that irritation is chronic. But let’s be honest about it, there’s also a confirmation bias and no matter what that person does, it further reinforces their misguided intent. Whereas if someone else, someone you think highly of, had done the exact same thing, you might think, all right. Yeah. Whatever. He/she is just having an off day.
- There’s a deeper issue at play here which, when realized, might lead to less consternation for you internally and less conflict externally: fundamental attribution error/bias.
- The core tenant of fundamental attribution error is that we ascribe the behavior of others more often to character or internal factors than situations.
The fact that nobody sees themselves as the villain of their own story;
- Consider the example of somebody cutting you off in traffic. Jerk! That is a quintessential example of attributing to character (vs. to circumstance).
- Contrary to this is how we see ourselves. We have a tendency to attribute how we behave to circumstance rather than to character. After I cut you off in traffic, I might think, “Sorry, I just had an upsetting conversation and wasn’t paying attention.” Circumstance.
- Understanding that we are prone to the fundamental attribution error can lead to better relationships and interactions.
Marcus Aurelius’ approach;
- As emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself of this in his Meditations, “When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good or evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?”
- Once we are aware that fundamental attribution error exists, what do we do about it? In addition to the Marcus Aurilies reframe, here are a few additional strategies.
Ways to address and manage fundamental attribution error;
- Awareness of fundamental attribution error is most certainly the most important, because without that you can’t do anything else. But there are other ways as well.
- Reframe that the person may be acting how they are because of circumstance.
- The Marcus Aurelius approach: put yourself in their shoes for a moment and consider where they’re coming from.
Stephen Covey’s simple yet powerful technique: first seek to understand, then be understood;
- In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey advises ‘seek first to understand then be understood’. During conversation we are often judging, calculating and frankly reloading the next thing we’re going to say rather than listening. Covey has a great way of phrasing this: “…we are filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside the other human being.”
- Covey recommends empathic listening: listening to fully understand what they’re saying and their frame of reference. It’s not that we have to always agree with someone else, far from it. Taking pause to consider an alternative perspective can have powerful effects.
An exercise to understand the other person’s perspective and sort out if you were truly wronged;
- Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez have a step-by-step process to work through this in Handbook for New Stoics. It’s structured in a way to identify the fundamental attribution error and also consider whether or not you were in fact truly wronged.
- Step 1: Think about someone who really frustrated or irritated you, or even did/said something that you felt hurt by. It doesn’t have to be someone in the present. It can also be someone from a previous interaction. Who was it? What did they do? Why did you feel wronged? How do you feel about that person right now?
- Step 2: Ask yourself – Why do you think they acted the way they did? What values might they hold that make sense of their actions?
- Step 3: After you have asked yourself why you think they acted like they did, then consider do you, or did you ever hold any of those values? If yes – write or think about a time you acted on them and perhaps frustrated or wronged another. If not – what internal character traits of yours do you value?
- Step 4: Take a final moment to express how you feel about this person now that you’ve gone through it.
“Could malice be misunderstanding?”;
- There’s a fantastic article on medium.com titled Could Malice be Misunderstanding? So perfect! When you feel wronged, your limbic brain will probably tell you “It’s malice, baby! That other person sucks 110%.”
Navigating fundamental attribution error during conflict;
- With all of the interactions we have in the day, interpersonal conflict is going to come up. But when conflict happens, there are some basic questions to help frame what’s going on and then navigate a path to resolution (from the perspective of fundamental attribution error). I learned this methodology from my mentor Andrew Neitlich at the Center for Executive Coaching.
- When you see that conflict is happening, first describe it. What’s going on?
- Now… What would it look like if the conflict were resolved? What’s the ideal situation?
- Once you’ve got the lay of the land and an idea of the ideal outcome for this conflict – How willing are you to resolve it?
- Sometimes conflict takes on a life of its own. The original thing that happened is long in the past. There’s probably some attribution error involved which leads to an even harder question. What responsibility are you willing to take for this conflict? This can be some hard medicine to swallow – it’s not a matter of eating crow or just sucking it up to sweep it under the rug. This is a cold, hard look in the mirror. As hard as it can be to stomach, each player has a role. There can sometimes be disproportionate contribution to the conflict, but we’ve all got a role to play.
- And maybe an even harder place to get to: Where’s the common ground? You might think, there’s no common ground at all, ‘I have nothing to do, say or any of it… with that person’. This is what Marcus Aurelius was getting at with his meditation, “When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger.”
The Most Respectful Interpretation, JFK, and the Cuban Missile Crisis;
- Another approach and related reframe is the most respectful interpretation, where you assume the best of the other person. Let’s be clear on this: you don’t know what’s driving them. They may be Machiavellian or hell-bent on destruction. But consider the most respectful interpretation, that their motivation is coming from a good place or at least what they see as a good place.
- If you think that your situation is too high stakes to apply this, consider John F Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian Premier, sent an extensive and respectful message of placation to John F Kennedy. In a bizarre twist, this was immediately followed by an aggressive hostile message. What was going on here?
- Kennedy framed this in such a way that the conciliatory message was where Khrushchev was really coming from and that the aggressive one was prodded by his generals. Maybe that was true, maybe not, but that was the perspective Kennedy took, and as far as we know no further mention was made of the aggressive message. Was the most respectful interpretation responsible for the subsequent de-escalation? I don’t know. It probably didn’t hurt.
Your own Cuban Missile Crisis;
- Looping back to your own conflict, if you are coming from a perspective of a most respectful interpretation, ask yourself, “How flexible am I willing to be?” I’m not saying to be taken advantage of, but take pause before reloading and rushing in like a bulldozer laying waste to all before you.
How to get 90% of the way with one step;
- Any of the tools in this article can help work through fundamental attribution error, but the real move here is to identify it when it’s happening. That is 90% of the way there. The recalibration, reorientation, and reframing, can only happen when you realize, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “When the game is afoot”.
- Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of experimental social psychology, 3(1), 1-24.
- Aurelius, M., & Antoninus, M. A. (2020). Meditations: Marcus Aurelius. Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing.
- Covey, S. R. (1991). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Pigliucci, M., & Lopez, G. (2019). A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control—52 Week-by-Week Lessons. The Experiment.