By: Kristen Jezek
I used to think I was a pretty great judge of character. In fact, when I saw someone cut a person off in the middle of the road, I thought I could make a pretty sound judgement on the type of person they were. After all, we all hate it when we’re cut off in traffic, it’s dangerous for goodness sake! Spending time in New York City could make you think it was almost your birthright to put judgments on the people you drove by on the street. However, fundamental attribution error and actor-observer difference suggest that our judgments about ourselves, others and motivations for behavior may not be so accurate after all.
The fundamental attribution error states that when judging other people’s behavior, we will tend to overestimate their behavior caused by their personal qualities or demeanor, and underestimate the influence of external factors on their actions (Schneider et all, 2012). Furthermore, the actor-observer difference explains our personal bias in ranking our own behavior due to external circumstances, rather than a judgement of our personal character (Schneider et all, 2012). These two theories and explanations of human behavior have a humbling effect on the girl who used to think she could judge a book by its cover.
“OH MY GOSH WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?!”, I screamed as I slammed on my brakes while moving out of my New York City apartment. Immediately I went on a tirade of how bad New York drivers were and how inconsiderate they could be for drivers like me on the road. Not even five minutes later, as my navigation system chimed “Turn left NOW” did I find myself swerving in a manner so characteristic of the person I just yelled over, I could have been doing a re-enactment of the previous scene. Multiple cars honked at me and I winced as I merged onto the freeway on-ramp, only to sit there in more traffic, surrounded by the very cars I had just cut off. “I can’t believe they’re looking at me like this, the navigation system didn’t even tell me to turn until the last second and I have no idea where I’m going—they should cut me some slack”. There I was, living proof of both the theories I just explained. When the car in front of me first cut me off I was sure it was a testament to his poor driving skills and the lack of consideration of “New Yorkers” (which, by the way, I also was). I made the fundamental attribution error on my fellow-driver and assumed that he knew where he was going and he purposefully cut me off, regardless of circumstance. Not even five minutes later, when I made my own driving snafu, I was quick to attribute my actions to outside circumstances, effectively rendering myself innocent, a la the actor-observer difference. I knew my circumstances were innocent enough, and I did not want to label myself a bad or inconsiderate driver. After all, the roads in New York are often one-way and if you miss your exit, you could be stuck in traffic for another hour trying to get back to it!
What were the implications of this experience? The humility that comes with the knowledge that you are not perfect and that other people may not be either. Life is a complicated series of moving parts and often there is more to it than meets the eye. This experience, the knowledge of the fundamental attribution error, and the actor-observer difference keeps me on my mental toes when anything doesn’t go as planned or people do not behave as I expect them to. This change affects how I treat myself and others on the road, in the doctor’s office, and in basically every human interaction. After all, surprises can happen anywhere.
The fundamental attribution error suggests that perhaps in our finite wisdom, we often place others on a higher standard than we place ourselves and attribute their misgivings to their personal faults rather than their outside environment. However, the actor-observer bias is an effect of us cutting ourselves slack, or perhaps innocently, just seeing more of the picture and attributing mistakes to outside forces beyond our personal integrity. The awareness of these two theories can be a powerful and humbling weapon in underestimating your fellow-man and overestimating your own circumstances. Perhaps if more people understood this, the world could be a kinder, more forgiving place.
1) Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.