Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | January 31, 2009

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The ‘fundamental attribution error’ is a psychological term that I became aware of from reading Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.  Essentially, if another driver on the highway cuts us off , we tend to think “what a jerk!”  If we cut off someone else, on the other hand, we do not think “what a jerk I am!”  We attribute our own action to something about the situation instead – “well, I had to merge and there was no other opening”. 

This is a psychological phenomenon that goes on throughout our lives in all kinds of settings, without our generally being aware of it.  It can be a significant source of ill will, resentment and conflict.  I think it doesn’t just occur on an individual level, either.  I see it in the conflict in Iraq.  If another country bombs yours to bits, and kills hundreds of thousands of your people, you’re not going to think, “hey, swell, they’re only devastating our country because they want us to be free”.  Because of the fundamental attribution error, you’re going to think, “what jerks!” (to put it mildly).  Whenever and wherever we use force, it’s going to be ascribed to our character, not the situation.  We have to be much more aware of that consequence prior to any mission where the use of force is authorized, and think about whether it’s truly in our best interest to cause people to have that opinion of us.

But to bring it back to being personally relevant, try to find situational explanations for things that other people do that upset you, rather than let the FAE tell you that they’re just a horrible, nasty person.  You’ll feel happier — even, dare I say it, more peaceful — and they’ll be grateful to you for not assuming that they’re a jerk.


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