So often we create quick narratives about people that we feel are causing us discomfort. Someone cuts in front of you in traffic and the narrative is that they are an entitled jerk. Someone snaps at you and you immediately assume the worst about them. This is how the fundamental attribution error works. We make stories up about people based on their character rather than the context of the situation. This also happens in our relationships and can have painful results.
Why we commit the fundamental attribution error.
Imagine yourself stuck in a traffic jam. You are feeling frustrated and hopeless about making it to your appointment. As this happens someone drives by you on the shoulder of the road. Immediately you feel as if they are unjustified for moving their vehicle forward when you are stuck. The frustration you were feeling now starts to create a story about the driver of this car. That person is wrong and they are the kind of person that doesn’t care about what is fair and right in the world. Can you relate to having done this at some point in your life?
The reason this happens is that our brains have a hard time taking in situational and behavioral information at the same time. Instead we choose one and often we focus our attention on the behavior rather than the situation. Once we are focused on the behavior it is not a far leap to start to characterize the person who committed the behavior as the problem.
The trouble with this type of reaction is that there are assumptions being made about someone’s character based on very little information. We assume broad personality traits based on one event.
It reminds me of a joke. A man is driving along a steep mountain road when another car comes by and the driver yells “pig,” at this man. The man is taken aback and cannot believe this person called him a pig. He begins to think of all the reasons the people in the passing car are terrible people. As the man goes around the next curve he runs into a pig.
It is not wrong to feel mistreated when someone commits a behavior that impacts you. By this I mean, takes the last cookie, or says something you find hurtful. The feelings are a natural response to what happened. However, when we go from the feeling to the narrative we get into some difficult territory.
Adding in more context.
As we walk into a store a person suddenly bumps into us. We are startled and our mind immediately wants to look to see the perpetrator. They may look back at us and apologize which only minimally reduces our outrage. As they walk away we begin to create a narrative of this person…clumsy, dumb, jerk, etc.
But is this a true picture of someone just misjudging the width of a door and assuming they could easily get through it as someone else is passing through? I’m guessing most people have accidentally bumped into someone at some point.
When we are aware of the fundamental attribution error we can add in more context. We can remind ourselves that most people are not trying to make our lives difficult. We can also provide better understanding when we recall having done similar things (e.g. bumping into people, cutting in line).
Give your partner a break.
Where I think awareness of this sociological issue can be helpful is in our partnerships. I know that for myself when I am hurt by my partner it is quite easy to create a story about something they did. If my wife is short with me I immediately start to form a narrative about the type of person she is. “She doesn’t get it, she is so unfair and rude…”
My goal is to slow down and notice my tendency to build this narrative and not actually believe it. I wish I could say I do this all the time but that would be a lie. The truth is that I am working on being more mindful of how I do this and letting the error I am believing pass through me without grasping on to it.
I have found that reminding myself of all of the wonderful characteristics of my partner can neutralize this momentary event. This is difficult in the moment but slowing it down helps me to see how unfair my overreaction is.
So take note of the fundamental attribution error and pay attention to how you may commit this. The next time your partner or child makes a snide remark give them a break. They may just be having a bad day.
If you or someone you know is struggling with relational issues I encourage you to reach out.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
About the author:
My name is Bryce Giron Mathern and I’m the owner of Brass Balls Tender Heart. I am a licensed therapist in the Denver Metro area. Being passionate and committed to helping my clients have amazing relationships with their partners, children and other family members is my thing.
I have spent a big chunk of my life learning the skills necessary to create healthy relationships. If you are struggling in a relationship I encourage you to reach out for help. I believe that through a process of healing old wounds and learning new skills people can build relationships that are nourishing and supportive.