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The Judgment Impulse

Try to recall an incident when you were driving and someone cut sharply in front of you, causing you to slam on your brakes. No doubt you had some choice words for that person who is obviously a selfish jerk. They probably steal from the elderly and cheat on their taxes as well.

Now think about the last time you cut someone else off (admit it – we’ve all done it). Was it because you are a total jerk? Or did you just make an honest mistake because you were stressed or in a hurry or having a bad day?

The most fundamental of errors

How we assess the causes of other people’s behavior is often quite different from how we assess our own. Psychologist Lee Ross named this the fundamental attribution error and it is one of the most frequent subconscious mistakes we make.

When we see someone we don't know misbehave, we attribute their behavior to their personality. We conclude that the person in front of us yelling at the cashier is just impulsive and hot-tempered. In reality, they may just be having a bad day.

Similarly, we may vote for a particular candidate because we see a likable person and attribute that to their core personality, even though that public persona is merely PR handiwork and they act quite differently in private.

In other words, we don’t look closely at situational factors when it comes to assessing others. But when it comes to ourselves, we know how much external forces determine how we behave. When we act badly it is because of our circumstances. It’s not who we really are.

This double standard is a huge problem because it results in inaccurate and often harsh assessments, which in turn inform our actions and decisions. It’s the lizard brain going for the fast and easy approach – a quick explanation – rather than taking the time to think about how the situation itself may be contributing to the behavior.

Confronting the lizard

The key to overcoming the fundamental attribution error is to recognize when it occurs and then taking a moment to do a deeper assessment – or to make no assessment at all.

Some suggestions:

- Power past first impressions. You may think your intuition about someone based on an initial impression is accurate, but often it is not. Take the time to get to know people and understand their circumstances before passing judgment or assuming their intentions.

- If it doesn’t matter, let it be. In other words, if the “why” behind someone’s actions is inconsequential to you, just embrace the uncertainty. Accept that it is okay to not know why someone acted in a certain way.

- Be mindful of how your own actions are affected by situational factors. Only by awareness of the external pressures working against us can we deliberately override them and make decisions that better reflect our values and who we are.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner


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