The Arrogance of Attribution Error

We’ve all done it. The dude three cars behind goes all Mario Andretti and passes everyone, only to cut me off as he slides in front my vehicle, forcing me to slam on the brakes in order to allow him space and avoid a collision.


Or worse.

Character judgment is made on this guy, based on solely his behavior. After all, why not? This guy must be a total arrogant jerk in real life. He has to be. He cut me off.

The reality may be that he is a genuinely nice person with a wife and kids and a dog who had too much coffee and too little sleep, and is now late for work and afraid of losing his job.

Once again, I am guilty of fundamental attribution error. And if I had money to gamble with, I’d be willing to bet that anyone who reads this has also been guilty of it, as well.

Passing judgment on people is something we do all the time. There are perhaps certain times when passing judgement on someone is the right, and maybe even the safe thing to do. However, I think most of the time, we carry the passing of judgement way to far.

I am doing a photography project this year, which involves two different things: 1. Taking a photo every day for one year (This is is known as a “Project 365”). and 2. In the course of the year I’ve determined that I will take a portrait of 100 strangers (You can view my photos along with other people’s “100 Strangers” photos on flickr. It’s actually very interesting!) One of the things I am trying to do with the 100 strangers project is learn to listen to people a little better. Sometimes taking a photo is a good means of doing that. It slows you down. It requires you to look in their eyes. You realize there is a story to tell. If there is no smile, or if there is unfriendliness, or if they refuse my request to take the picture … it’s okay. There may be, and probably are, much deeper reasons as to why people respond to life (and photography) the way they do. Photography is teaching me this about people. The conditions of people’s lives are huge determining factors of their behavior. Context should be considered before judgment is dispensed.

I am convinced that fundamental attribution error is also a huge problem for those of us working cross-culturally. I can remember when I first came to Mongolia and visited the market. My American space-bubble senses were absolutely assaulted with all of the pushing and shoving and maneuvering for position. I can remember going down a narrow aisle trying to look at shoes and feeling someone’s hands on my back physically moving me out the way. I was getting annoyed and was about to turn around and glare and the punk who couldn’t wait for one minute while I looked at a stupid pair of shoes. When I turned around to give him my icy glare, I looked down and realized it was a little old grandmother who simply wanted to slip by me. Didn’t have the heart to glare at her.

I soon came to realize that in Mongolian culture, this is just the way it is. A hand in the small of the back coupled with a slight and forceable push is merely a way of saying, “Excuse me, I need to get by”. The people who do this are not evil or selfish or even impatient. There is nothing wrong with their “character”. This is just a part of the culture. Cultural understanding will go a long way to combat fundamental attribution error.

Across all cultures, examples abound. The important thing is to withhold character judgment on people who are different from us; those who may think and act differently than we do. Culture will often determine our actions, more than any of us realize. It is ours to withhold judgement. People around us could act the way that they do, not because of an evil bent or lack of character or consideration of others. They may have very different values from me for the simple reason of cultural difference.

My time in Mongolia has caused me to think through these things much more carefully than I used to, and having been on both the giving and receiving side of fundamental attribution error, I am trying very hard to think about these things before I pass judgment on people I don’t know, understand or have even talked to. I’ve also come to realize that it’s important to grant grace to others who mete out judgment on things they don’t know or understand. It’s easy to do, and sometimes it’s hard not to do.

Finally, I’ve learned that one of our ultimate obligations as human beings it to seek out and to understand other human beings. The humility of listening, applied. Fundamental attribution error is not only detrimental to relationships, it comes off as arrogant. The remedy is to listen, understand and withhold judgement. That isn’t easy, especially for those of us who have a tendency to quick assessment and judgment. The problem is that none of us are as smart as we think we are.

Context and culture. Withholding judgement until thoroughly understanding these things would save a lot of folks from a world of pain. While it probably will not keep “wanna-be-Mario” from cutting you off, at least you can place his actions into a more redemptive story. While we will probably have no way of knowing whether or not the story is true, I’m pretty sure we’d all be happier people, and I think this kind of thinking is much more in line with the intent of I Corinthians 13.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13:7

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