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Putting it All in Perspective -or- That Jerk Cut Me Off!

February 7, 2014

How many of us have been in a situation like this? You’re driving down the freeway, minding your own business. Traffic is heavy, and all of a sudden, someone cuts in right in front of you, causing you to either swerve or hit your brakes. Can you feel the adrenaline rush that follows? What is most likely the first thought that we have about that individual? What a jerk!!! In other words, we make an assumption about who they are as a person. Only a rude and inconsiderate person would do something like that. Right?

I would like to set up another scenario for you. How many of us have been in the same situation, but as the driver that cut someone off? What is most likely the first thought that we have when this happens? “I’m sorry, traffic is heavy and I’m in a hurry.” Or maybe, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” In other words, we tie a context to what we did. We make no attributions about who we are as a person. There is a logical explanation regarding why we did what we did. 

What I am alluding is a tendency that all of us have as humans. Lee Ross coined the term, fundamental attribution error, based on psychological research that was first conducted in the late 60’s. Basically, this concept proposes that when we observe another person’s behavior, we tend to make assumptions about their disposition. However, when we look at our own behavior, we tend to take into account contextual factors and completely deny assumptions about our disposition.

Why do we do this? It all comes down to energy. It takes a lot more mental energy to consider the different contextual factors that cause a person to behave a certain way. Even when someone is really rude to us, there may be a great explanation as to why they aren’t being friendlier. Our brains are constantly looking for ways to operate more efficiently. Quick assumptions are shortcuts that require very little energy, but unfortunately in this case, those assumptions tend to have a fairly low level of reliability.

So here is my charge you to: Next time you see someone behave in a way that tempts you to think, “What a jerk!”, fight against that urge and consider context. We do it for ourselves all the time.

By Treg Thomas