Master of Your Domain? I Don't Think So!
Take a moment to reflect on a bad thing you’ve done. It could be a fairly recent action or an action way back in your past. But no settling for a minor faux pas! Keep thinking until you’ve hit upon something really shameful.
If you can’t remember any action you took which would mortify you if it were front page news today, congratulations. You’re either a saint or skilled at repressing what you wish to forget. Now for those of you who do remember, how do you explain your transgression? Stop reading until you come up with an explanation!
Now let me guess what your explanation is. It's probably similar to one of these: I had too much to drink; I was high; I was young; I was angry; I was in love; I wasn’t thinking; I went along with the crowd; I was afraid; it was a dare; I didn’t know any better; I thought I was being cool.”
Now picture someone else doing something similar today. How do you imagine you’d explain their behavior? Though you might be tempted to repeat the reason you just came up with, it’s likely that it’d be radically different, more like:
What’s wrong with you? How could you do that? How stupid could you be? You’re pathetic! You’re sick! Didn’t I teach you anything? Don’t you have any values? I can’t even look at you!”
Quite a difference in the causal attribution you have for yourself and for others!
Here’s why such differences occur:
When making a judgment about another’s bad behavior, we tend to attribute enduring character traits for their bad behavior. Yet when judging our own bad behavior, we tend to cite situational or temporary factors. Yes, we may feel bad about what we did, but we explain it away as a lapse in judgment, a tired mood, ignorance, peer pressure, substance abuse and similar transitory determinants.
So who’s right? Are our actions more influenced by our personality or by the situation we find ourselves in? As much as we’d like to believe that we are masters of our domain, studies show that we’re much more influenced by situational factors that we’d like to believe.
Our readiness to go along with the crowd, to obey authority, to respond impulsively is a truth about human nature that many would prefer to discount. Intuitively, however, we know this is true. Why else would parents be wary when their kid starts hanging out with the wrong crowd? Or, a spouse gets too chummy with a friend of the opposite sex?
Studies show that situational factors easily entice us to act differently from the way we usually act. Yet, we don’t admit to that. We’re poor judges of our propensity to stray from conscientious conduct, believing that we’ll act better that we actually do.
Now that you know what “fundamental attribution error” is, in the name of fairness wouldn’t it be just to judge another’s lapse of judgment as least as kindly as you judge your own?
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.