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How We Judge Others and Give Ourselves a Pass For Doing the Same Thing

Written by John Kuder

Table Of Contents

In our daily lives, we encounter various situations where we observe and interpret the actions of others. However, did you know that our judgments may often be influenced by a cognitive bias known as the fundamental attribution error? In this blog post, we will explore the concept of fundamental attribution error, how it affects our decision-making process, and ways to become more aware of our biases.

What is Fundamental Attribution Error?

Fundamental attribution error is a term used to describe the tendency to attribute someone’s behavior to their internal characteristics or personality traits, rather than considering situational factors that might have influenced their actions. In simpler terms, we tend to make quick judgments about others based on what we observe, without delving into the underlying external factors.

Understanding Bias:

It is important to clarify that the bias discussed here is not related to social bias, but instead refers to a literal bias – a strong inclination towards perceiving someone’s behavior in a certain way. This bias can be conscious or unconscious, meaning we may not even be aware that we are making these biased judgments.

Dispositional vs. Situational:

Fundamental attribution error manifests itself in two primary ways: dispositional and situational attributions. Dispositional attributions involve attributing someone’s behavior to their inherent character flaws or personal traits. On the other hand, situational attributions consider external circumstances as the cause of their behavior.

Consider the scenario of someone cutting you off in traffic. Our immediate reaction might be to label that person as a reckless driver or assume they have a character flaw. However, by practicing fundamental attribution error, we fail to consider that they may be rushing to attend to an emergency or experiencing a personal crisis that influenced their driving. This example demonstrates how we tend to overemphasize internal traits without accounting for external circumstances.

Why do we fall into this bias?
One reason behind our propensity for fundamental attribution error lies in our cognitive nature. Our brains are wired to conserve energy and often rely on quick, automatic thinking processes instead of deep analysis. This autopilot mode saves energy for survival purposes when resources are limited. Consequently, we tend to make snap judgments based on limited information, ignoring the complexity of human behavior.

Becoming Aware and Overcoming Bias:
Awareness is the first step towards overcoming fundamental attribution error. By acknowledging our tendency to make snap judgments, we can start questioning our assumptions and restoring balance to our assessments of others. A related bias, known as the actor-observer bias, reveals how we tend to attribute our own behavior to situational factors while labeling others’ actions as dispositional. This bias highlights the need to remain objective and consider the broader context when making judgments.

Applying Awareness in Business:
The concept of fundamental attribution error extends beyond personal interactions and can be applied to the business setting. As business owners or managers, we might encounter situations where employees make mistakes or exhibit undesirable behaviors. Instead of immediately labeling them as lazy or incompetent, we can practice empathy and seek to understand their circumstances. By adopting a more compassionate approach, we can foster a positive and understanding work culture that encourages personal growth and cooperation.

Fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that affects our decision-making process by leading us to make biased judgments about others based on limited information. By becoming aware of this bias and actively questioning our assumptions, we can strive to be more fair, understanding, and empathetic in our interactions. In both personal and professional settings, practicing empathy and considering situational factors will help us develop a more accurate understanding of others’ behavior and foster healthier relationships.

We invite you to explore the fascinating world of cognitive biases and mental models. Download our Family Harmony Guide for practical tips on building better relationships and overcoming biases. Together, let’s challenge our biases and enhance our decision-making skills for a more harmonious life.

Note: The preceding blog post is generated by AI and may have minimal editing. The transcription is AI generated but has been edited by a human for accuracy. The original video content is entirely human and imperfect.

Video Transcript:

Hi. Hi, I’m John. And I’m Connie. Okay, so we introduced ourselves. Oh, we did. Yeah, I was wondering how we were going to work that in, so. And we might cut it right back out. Who knows? Okay, so yeah, what are we talking about today, John? We are talking about a particular kind of stinking thinking called fundamental attribution error.

A big, big fancy term for something that gets in the way of us making good decisions. Oh, I have a lot of those. So you know, we all want to make the best decisions we can. Right. Yeah. Hopefully. I mean, we don’t just like go out and, Oh, I think I’m going to do something stupid today. It’s not stupid Friday, but make car aside.

Okay. But but sometimes we just don’t see that we’re, we’re biased. We don’t, we don’t know it. And, and biased is, you know, it’s a term that gets used a lot of different ways. So, we’re not talking about a social bias here. We’re talking about the literal bias, meaning it’s leaning one way stronger than another.

You know, so, so and, and maybe we conscious and maybe we’re not. Okay. Hi, Julie. Thanks for watching. And so it’s not, you know, it’s not crazy or stupid. It’s just this, you know, unconscious, in this case, an unconscious bias. Okay. Okay. So this one is, uh, like I said, it’s a cognitive bias and it leads to errors and judgment.

And this one is about how we look at other people’s behavior. Okay. So, okay. You know, we see somebody do something and we, we, we make it, you know, we make a decision or, or, or a label about how come they did that. Right. You know, why, why did they do that? Yeah. Psychological research is, you know, gets done and they use big words.

And so they got to be precise and sound smart. So we’ve got this fundamental attribution error. So fundamental just means yeah. At the base, right? At the bottom. Fundamentally. Attribution is our labeling, our blaming our, you know, they did that because. Okay? Attribution. And then, and then they, the two areas that we, that we are, you know, leaning one way or the other towards is whether the person themselves is, you know, some character flaw or something in them.

Is the reason, and that’s

dispositional. Okay, like their disposition, right? You got a sunny disposition, or you know, that’s how we use the word commonly, right? Oh, that’s true. Versus situational. Now that doesn’t need any explaining, right? So where does behavior come in? here? Well, it’s it’s a behavior either way. It’s what what influenced their behavior.

For example, you had somebody cut you off in traffic the other day, right? Okay. I mean, he went over five lanes of traffic. Okay. Like, like almost perpendicular to the traffic. Exactly. He was on one side and he wanted to get on. How many people slammed on the break? Oh, four lanes. Okay. So, you had an impression of what that person Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

I’m sure that, that, that a lot of us had. A lot, yeah. Right? And, and so, the, the most, you know, this bias, if you had this bias, you decided that per, there was something wrong with that person. Oh, yeah. Okay. Versus, Oh, my God, maybe you know, he, he realized he was so beside himself and worry about a family member he was trying to get to that, that he got in the wrong lane and, and the idea of being five minutes late by having to go turn around what, you know, just freaked him out.

And so he reacted something. I mean, yeah. Okay, so, in that moment, you didn’t start, yeah, start thinking about, well, what could have caused him to do that, this, you know, right? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. He’s a, mm hmm, okay. He’s a dumbass. Okay, so that’s the bias. That’s the fundamental attribution error in action. And, and it’s, so it’s overemphasizing the influence of people’s personality traits versus the, something in their external situation.

Okay. Okay? So, how come we do that? Well, it’s lazy. Right. To a large extent, it is lazy. That’s my opinion. It’s easier. Sure. Okay, and part of it is we’re hardwired to, by evolution, to try to go on autopilot whenever we can and not think. Use as little brain power as possible because it uses a lot of our energy.

And when food’s in scarce supply, We need to conserve our energy. Okay, so we do a lot of things on autopilot Okay and there’s a there’s a guy named Daniel Kahneman that got a Nobel Prize and he wrote a book called thinking fast and slow and and he I mean he really did a lot of research in This area and so we’re not getting into that.

Yeah Okay, so we can see the person, right? We see what they did, and we trust what we see, and we just, you know, whatever we saw in that moment, that’s what caused it, right? It’s, and rather than thinking about something external that we didn’t see or can’t see. So we don’t know if he had a fight with his wife or if his kid’s in the hospital or whatever, you know, but that’s the, we don’t fact, so we don’t, we have to slow ourselves down to factor that kind of stuff in.

Right. Okay. So. So how do we stay aware of that?

Great question. Great question. We have to, we have to get curious. Okay. Well, you skipped ahead of me. Oh, I know. I tend to do that. I got a plan here. But but so there’s another fundamental there’s another cognitive bias that’s like, you know, kissing cousins with this one. And it’s called actor observer bias.

And it, it’s, it just adds another part. So when we’re the, when we’re the observer, that’s when we use this fundamental attribution error. And I’m, good thing my hands aren’t showing. Well, maybe they are. I’ve got some notes here. So that when we’re the observer, we, we tend to look at other people and say, Oh, well, it’s because of the way they are.

You know, they did that because of the way they are internally, that permanent, kind of a permanent thing. Okay. Okay. About them. When we do something, And yeah, exactly. Not my fault. It’s my shoes are too tight. The strings on the tennis racket are too loose. That guy pulled in front of me in traffic, you know, whatever.

I mean, we we blame all these situational things. We don’t say I’m fundamentally flawed as a person. True. But we call other people out on that. Right. So that’s that actor observer bias. We’re biased. In favor of ourselves, we give ourselves a break and against other people, just if we, if we have this bias.

Now if we stop and think a minute, and that’s usually with an emotional reaction too, right? If we stop and think a minute, we, okay, well maybe they, you know, maybe something, maybe they deserve a break. Right, and he didn’t really cause an accident, he thought about it, or, you’re bad at this. Yeah, so, so how can we use this in our work, in our business?

Right. Alright, so, let’s say you’re the boss. Well, we’re, yeah, we’re, we’re here to help small businesses and remove their frustration. Correct. Right? Okay. So, guy boss, somebody comes into work late. Okay. Boss has been maybe covering for him and says, you know, sees him coming to work. He’s a little peeved, right?

So does he use this bias? Does he decide that that person was late because the, you know, there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. They’re lazy. They don’t care. It’s up to their alarm. They have whatever, they didn’t have enough gas in their car. Yeah, yeah. Well that could be okay. Yeah. That’s poor planning, you know?

I mean, you could, you could go, you can go a couple different ways. Right? Right. But in that moment, does that person, that boss, do we as the boss, do we ask some questions or do we just decide they’re lazy? You know? And that would be, well you hope that you would ask the questions. Yeah, but sometimes we don’t.

Stopped long enough to do that, right? So that’s, but that’s a way we could apply this in, in our business is to, you know, try to make it a, build it into our culture to always give somebody the benefit of the doubt. Like, so when you ask a solution, one way would be when we are tempted to. judge somebody or, you know, call somebody out.

Think about if that person was somebody that I really loved, somebody in my, you know, right in my, you know, family, inner circle, whatever, best friend, how would I, how would I handle it? How would I talk to them? Yeah, I’d probably go. Right? It would, it would give you a little bit of pause. Yeah, that’s true.

And and then another thing that we can do is before we act is just notice If, if, if, like, if we’re feeling that emotion coming up, notice and ask ourselves, what am I feeling right now? Okay. Just that asking the question makes. It changes things. It changes things in our brain and, and you know, we’ll talk about this another time, but we don’t ever feel just one thing at one time.

So it’s, it’s going to be a mixture of things. Men do that too? Yes. Men do that too. So those are, you know, that’s a technique, you know, just, just stopping for a second, taking that little pause and asking, okay, what am I feeling? And if, you know, and then maybe if I act on that, you know, what, what are the, what are the consequences?

Is there a, is there a better way? So that’s two cognitive biases. We’re going to talk a bunch about in the coming days and weeks about mental models and, and how we can use those effectively. Okay. If you’d like to download. A little guide we put together. It’s called the Family Harmony Guide. I’m going to put a link in the you know, the comments here and hope to see you.

We’re going to be doing this more often. Yes, we are. All right. At least once a week. Somebody gets her act together. Bye.

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