It is an important day at work, and you have to give a presentation in front of all your designatories. You need the assistance of your fellow employee, who happens to come late for the presentation. What is your first reaction? She must be late because she is so careless and lackadaisical. Do you ever consider he might have an emergency at home, or an accident on his way?
Why is it that most of us instinctively, invariably direct scrutiny at one’s personality and character when they are at fault?
Attribution is the cognitive process by which we try to understand the behavior of other people. On the basis of our experiences with people, we attribute their behavior either to external factors such as surroundings, situations, or to internal factors such as one’s personality. However, we tend to carry out attribution in erroneous ways when it comes to judging other people and perceiving the society.
Our inclination to make an illogical leap and pass judgments on the character of a person, which makes many of us difficult to please, is because of what is termed as the fundamental attribution error. When judging a person on the basis of behaviors, we tend to over value the importance of internal factors over external ones. The instance cited right at the beginning indicates to this same tendency. Rational thinking would ideally demand consideration of both external factors and internal factors, and finally giving precedence to what seems most reasonable. In situations where we are close to a particular person, we tend to be more considerate and less difficult. However, in most cases where attribution is towards people we are acquainted to, we avoid the consideration of situational factors. Which is precisely why when we try to understand the reason for the fellow employee’s delay, it would rarely occur to us to examine external factors, and we would frame a mental construct citing him as a careless person. Despite having little fault, it becomes difficult for the fellow employee to change the unwarranted precept we build of his personality. The irony is even though we give others a hard time by putting them under close scrutiny, and attributing their behavior to their personality, when it comes to ourselves, we do the opposite. This tendency, known as the actor-observer bias, is another error in attribution we possess. For instance, if we came to the office late, we would say it was because of the traffic, or an emergency at home, or unforeseen circumstances; however, in case of a fellow employee we would attribute his impunctuality to his indifferent attitude.
Several theories seem to support and provide explanation to the presence of this error. Firstly, many of us seem to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, i.e. that the world has an underlying system of justice. This belief was coined by Lerner as the ‘just-world phenomenon’, which causes people to give increased importance on the agency of individuals, and seeing circumstances as unimportant to result in any sort of action. This often impairs us from judging people and situations favourably, and more significantly, correctly. It is the reason why often people blame victims of rape or domestic violence. The amount of emphasis given to the individual also varies from culture to culture, data indicates Western thought tends to be more individualistic that Eastern thought that focuses on the collectivistic. Sometimes, we know there are situational factors present, but tend to overlook it, or fail to give the importance due. For instance, we often give increased importance to the actor, and see situations as a background. Even though technically acknowledging its presence, we see it as dormant. In other cases, adjust for dispositional and circumstantial factors; we fail to take into account the external situation along with the internal character of a person together to produce a judgment.
Errors in attribution cause us to make unfavorable judgments very frequently. Perhaps, if you are in perpetual contempt of the people around you, and fail to understand why they act the way they do, stop for a moment and consider what actually lies beneath their behavior. We are all hard nuts, and we are all trying to crack each other, but it would be infinitely easier if we tried to do it with a sound mind and a rational approach.
-Contributed by Tinka Dubey
Picture Credits: thoughtcatalogue.com