The Fundamental Attribution Error explains a lot about how we view ourselves and others. There are two parts to it:
- We view other’s actions as a reflection on their personality or who they are as people. Thus, if someone wrongs us, we view them as bad, mean, selfish, misguided, etc.
- We view our own actions based on the circumstances of our situation. If we do something wrong to others we are quick to justify it based on the situation – not who we are as people.
For example, if someone lies to us, we may think of the person as “a liar.” However, when we ourselves lie we think about our situation – that we lied to protect feelings of another, for example – and we do not view ourselves as being “a liar.”
Another example, “if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so. We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character. “
Another example, “If you snap at a coworker, for example, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you had difficulty sleeping last night and had financial struggles this month. You’re not evil, just stressed! The coworker who snaps at you, however, is more likely to be interpreted as a jerk, without going through the same kind of rationalization. This is convenient for our peace of mind, and fits with our domain of knowledge, too. We know what pressures us, but not necessarily others.”
What to do about it
In reading about Fundamental Attribution Error the best solution offered seems to be to realize that we are all fellow travelers through life and we all are doing the best we can. We all have challenges, problems and suffer. Thus, when somebody acts poorly, step back and remember that they are a fellow traveler, a fellow sufferer, and are probably doing the best they can. It’s likely the burden of their situation rather than some personality defect that caused them to act the way they did. Cut them some slack. Shake it off.