I have a 10-year-old brother. He’s a perfect definition of a handful; he’s high energy, low attention, not especially well-coordinated, but a lover of dangerous adventure, testing authority, and always squirming. Coming home for spring break, I got to see the little fellow again. I was also re-introduced to a struggle with patience.
Naturally sometimes my youngest sister and my brother squabble. My little sister will lose her patience and yell at my brother. “He’s not going to listen to you or respect you if you yell at him,” I’m always quick to advise, assuming my sister must just not be grown-up enough to recognize that such little things are not worth getting worked up over. It’s just part of being a kid, an instinct you have to grow out of. It’s just part of who my sister is right now.
However, as I was on break, I’m ashamed to admit I found myself yelling at my little brother as well. “Gosh, this cold really makes me irritable,” I was thinking just the other morning. Having a sore throat and a dripping nose has a surprising effect on one’s patience.
This type of thinking is a great example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when you judge a person’s character for their actions, instead of putting the emphasis on their situation. For example, when another student gets a bad grade, you are likely to think they are a little less smart or capable as a person. However, if you were to get the same bad grade, you’d be likely to attribute it to your situation–the tough teacher, the confusing test, the lack of sleep you had.
In American culture, we are taught from childhood that we are masters of our own fate and can control our destinies (Shiraev & Levy, 2013, p. 69). Hence, when we tend to judge actions as if it was the person’s choice and will to act that way. We see the homeless as being homeless because they are lazy, the oppressed as oppressed because they are weak, and those struggling as struggling because they are just that kind of person. Not only do we assume that they are the source of their situations, we assume that they probably deserve it (Shiraev & Levy, 2013, p. 70).
This attribution is so easy to commit we do it all the time without realizing it. But this error is an error. Thinking this way–ignoring the effect a situation has on another’s actions–leads directly to judgmentalism that really isn’t fair. My sister wasn’t yelling at my brother because it is just in her nature to yell. She was yelling at him because she was at the point where she didn’t know what else to do. Similarly, I can’t put all the blame for yelling at my brother on having a cold. If something as minor as having a cold causes me to act in anger towards my 10 year old brother, I need to work on my patience!
Can you think of situations where you have fallen prey to the Fundamental Attribution error? What is something you judge the character of others for but blame your situation for when you commit the same action? What are you going to do to try to think differently?