What We See vs. What We Know

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What We See vs. What We Know

The Fundamental Attribution Error references a tendency we have as humans to attribute another person’s action to their personality, often labeling them in the process, and our own actions are attributed to our external situation or circumstances. 

For example, we see someone cut in line way up ahead of us to get to the front of the line at the pharmacy.  We might immediately think, “Who does this #$@%&# think they are?!” We get upset and think they are a bad person. On the other hand, if we have a situation where we need to get our grandmother her heart medication, since she’s been unable to fill it for days due to quarantine protocols in her area.  We rush to the pharmacist only to see a long, socially distanced, line ahead of us. In our fear, love, and concern for our beloved grandmother, we run up to the front of the line to plead with the pharmacist to expedite her refill. For them, we fill in the information gaps with assumptions about them and their inexcusable actions. For us, the situation is somehow different and our actions are justified.

In short, we attribute other people’s actions to their personality or some character flaw and our actions are based on the circumstances or situations at that time. They are inherently bad because of who they are and we are good people, placed in a bad situation causing us to behave a way we normally wouldn’t.

Knowing this information and our tendency as human beings to do this, what does this mean and what do we do with this information?

It means we have an opportunity to embrace our humanity and, therefore, the humanity of others around us.  We can step back and look more objectively at a person’s actions and seek to learn, understand, and empathize with them. When we look within ourselves, and see the moments where we acted a certain way because of our emotions related to what was happening or our circumstances at the time, we can begin to uncover how we went from point A to point B (or Not A, as neuroscientist Beau Lotto states).

When we’re honest with ourselves, really looking at why we did what we did in the “heat of the moment”, we can better understand how other people act or respond similarly.  As Adi Jaffe, Ph.D, states:

Treating people with compassion rather than contempt is far more beneficial to us as individuals and in the greater community.

In order to overcome this tendency, we must look within ourselves and be honest with why we think and do the things we do. This internal exploration will allow us to question and uncover the “why’s” behind these questions. We are doing the work. Our work.

As we do our work, let’s remember to keep our eyes on our own papers too!

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