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


Still different (and crazy) after all these years

In just a few months, Renee’ and I will be hitting the quarter century milestone of marriage. As I think about it, I realze that two and half decades really isn’t that long. At all. The break-neck speed of life has been all too real recently - and it sometimes takes my breath away. Like a freefall on a roller coaster.

But that’s not what this particular blog is supposed to be about at all. So, I’ll get back to my subject.

Even after 25 years, I am amazed at how different we are, yet how well we work together.

Renee’ and I were comparing notes the other day, as we prepared for a couples bible study we are doing with some Mongolian friends of ours. This photo pretty much sums up the results.

It’s funny how very differently we think. Renee’ is organized and systematic. Her notes end up being clean, linear, color-coded charts laid out in her very neat handwriting (my wife has the best handwriting of anyone I know).

My notes? Scattered and random words in my Field Notes brand notebooks (I really do love these notebooks) with lines and arrows, in barely discernable scribbles. There is chaos and random (but ARE they random?) connections on the page, and typically I’ve done this while talking to myself the entire time like an insane person.

We laughed at our differences. However, we ended up coming to many similar conclusions and convictions, and, ultimately, had an excellent Bible study with our friends.

This incident has me thinking a little more this week about the way God has wired our brains. Much research and work has been accomplished surrounding issues like “learning styles” and “multiple intelligence” theory. This is a much larger and more complex subject than a 1000 word blog has any business getting into. However, I do think it’s a subject that should be explored by the individual, and especially those who are involved with cross-cultural work.

Understanding How You Learn - Cross-Culturally

Hind-sight is always 20/20. Maybe even 20/10. When we first came to Mongolia and were sitting in Mongolian language class, Renee’ and I quickly discovered that our learning styles were very different. I am not sure that we had defined them at that point … but we knew we were going to learn Mongolian in very different ways. This became evident to the point of frustration. Thankfully we ended up being in separate classes, or we may not have made it to the 25 year milestone anniversary we are looking forward to at the moment.

I do believe a better understanding of our own learning styles on the front end, would have made us both better language and culture students. Renee’ needed to “see” (she’s a highly visual learner). She perhaps would have been more patient with herself when it came to listening (she’s visual, not aural), and perhaps looked more carefully at strategies for getting the listening part. I would have made sure that I was in a place of constant “usage” from early on … more listening and talking and less writing, but also come up with strategies for getting the “grammar and writing” areas, where my natural inclinations are weaker.

Bottom line, understanding these things would have given us both some advanced warning as to where we’d be strong, where we’d be weak, and we both might have avoided some serious potholes along the way, not only in our personal learning, but in understanding each other. .

This goes for more than how to learn a language. It goes to how to teach a language (this is Renee’s work right now). It even goes with how to learn a culture, which is a never-ending process. I’m finding that self-awareness in this area is critical to success. This goes for students, as well as teachers.

When teaching, I must remember that many (if not most) of the learners in my current context are most likely NOT aural learners like I am. They may not have the intellectual or emotional patience for lectures, listening and an abundance of words. They may have a need to talk, interact, take notes, do something with their hands, see a picture, make a chart or act out what is being taught. I have two friends (you know who you are) who make detailed and intricate drawings while listening to a sermon or sitting in a meeting. It looks like they are not paying a bit of attention to anything that’s happening, but can report back every detail when all is said and done.

It is interesting to read the research being done in the area of learning styles and related studies in multiple intelligence theory. It is perhaps even more useful to understand ourselves, our personal learning style along with the strengths and weakness of potential various intelligences. Gary Thomas takes some of this research and applies it to spirituality and the way individuals might relate to God in an interestesting way. His book Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God can be a helpful and liberating read in this regard.

Liberating. That’s what understanding this about yourself can be. It eliminates a lot of self-flagellating when I don’t feel as smart as the next guy because I suck at math and have a terrible sense of direction. Logical-mathematical is only one area of intelligence. It keeps me from being critical of the person who can’t keep time when clapping to a song (musical-rhythmical is actually a thing!), when the same person may have great smarts in another area. The modality by which I learn new skills (like language and culture) will be very different from the modality which my wife, or my kids, or my co-workers will learn new skills.

God has wired us all in very different ways.

If properly understood, those differences are what makes marriage … and community … beautiful.


The Ethos of Worship (and why "goal-setting" is bad for my soul)

I am finished setting goals.

Seriously. I’m done.

You may have heard the whole schpeel about setting “Specific, measureable, obtainable, relevant, time-related” goals. It’s typical corporate-speak (that is now typical modern era church-leadership-speak).

But, for me, no more.

I know. Many people I know would insist that we must be “goal oriented.” (whatever that means). I’m familiar with the arguments for goal setting.

“You will not accomplish anything without setting goals”

“If you don’t have a target, you will hit nothing”

And something, something a “moving target.”

Blah, blah, blah. It all seems a bit clichè to me.

There’s a better way than goal setting, at least the way that “goal setting” is typically accomplished.

When it comes down to it, goal-setting doesn't work, in the same way that “New Year’s Resolutions” don't work. Goals are rarely, if ever, met in the specific ways we typically set them up. We often justify our plans by the feel of forward progress. Maybe we are further along in whatever our objectives may be than if there had been no goals. And while that is possible, I do not believe it to be an effective route to productivity … and, frankly, find it a downright depressing path.

I do believe in having objectives (this a very different concept than that of “goals”). But I’m exploring a contrasting idea in my personal life right now: Goal-setting will ultimately NOT be the practice that helps to achieve my objectives. The activities that will produce real movement in achieving objectives will be having a system and an ethos that advances me in the right direction. I’m finding that life, in general works better when I have less of a “goal-oriented” mindset and more of a “systems-oriented” mindset.

Here’s a recent and specific way this has worked for me.

I had to finish my Masters dissertation. In order to do so by my self-imposed deadline, mathematically speaking, I needed to pump out X number of words every day. So it made sense to give myself a daily “writing goal”. This worked on some days. I’d meet my goal, and feel good about myself, or I’d not meet my goal and feel like a loser. This wasn’t working.

Here’s what did work.

I got up every morning at the same time. Made coffee. Spent some time with my Bible and in prayer. Did two pages of free-writing in my journal. Made more coffee. Then did dissertation writing for several hours. Every morning. After a few short weeks, this became my morning ethos. Every day.

I finished my dissertation, and am receiving excellent feedback.

As I look back, I don’t think I finished because I made specific, measurable, obtainable, relevant, time-related goals. I finished because I had a system and an ethos that worked.

I could give more examples. I could also give lots of examples in the context of ministry (e.g., we “set measurable goals” for things like church-planting, but fail to think through systems which will result in an ethos of discipleship … this happens in US churches and mission fields around the world all the time. Another day, another blog, perhaps.)

However, I was thinking about this issue of “systems and ethos” a couple of weeks ago, as I prepared a sermon for Cornerstone Church of All Nations (which you can listen to online, if you wish) on Romans 12:1–2.

An ethos of worship is a necessary (and Biblical) objective for all believers in Jesus.

“Transformed by the renewal of the mind” is not about being more educated or having more BIble knowledge. It’s not about “setting goals” for our spiritual life that we can measure, obtain, etc., etc. It’s about ordering our lives … systemizing our lives … to live in an ethos of worship. This is what it takes. Worship changes us. Worship transforms us. Worship is the objective.

I am still thinking through this in my own life. How do I need to order my life so that worship is indeed my priority? I don’t think that’s about setting goals to “worship so many hours every day”. I think it’s deeper than that. More formative. Closer to the soul.

Things get super specific at this point. How I order my mornings. What kind of things do I do … or obstain from … during my days and evenings. How will I consciously work the disciplines of silence and solitude and listening into my daily and weekly routine. This requires much more than the banalities of corporate “goal-setting.” This requires an element of deeper self-awareness, others-awareness and, ultimately, Holy Spirit-awareness that isn’t conducive the cold-blooded nature of “goal setting”.

I know some will disagree (perhaps even “strongly disagree”) with my proposition here. It’s fine if you do (you’re welcome to make your point in the comments). However, I do know this: even if setting “specific, measureable, obtainable, relevant, time-related goals” is the way you need to “get things done”, it will not be enough.

There has to be a system which produces an ethos. At that point, I think real work will be accomplished. At least that’s how it’s working out for me. Personally. Corporately. For the Kingdom.


Dragon Riders and Sea Captains

I listen to a lot of audio books.

Maybe it’s because I tend to walk or take public transport to work, or maybe it’s because I tend to be a slow reader, or perhaps it’s because I’m a high-audio learner. But in any case, audio books are a non-guilty pleasure for me, and I’ve listened to a ton of them over the past eight years that we’ve been in Mongolia. I’ve listened to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (AWESOME book to listen to. It’s narrated by Simon Prebble, who is one of the best narrator of audio books that I know of) to Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (an excellent primer in strategic thinking). Ecelectic audio books are usually what I’m listening to, when my iPhone is attached to my ear.

One of the fiction books I read (listened to) recently was an alternative history novel by Noami Novek called His Majesty's Dragon: A Novel of Temeraire, which is the first book in a series about the Royal English Air Force during the Napolianic wars. How is that possible? There were no airplanes during the Napolianic wars, you say? Ahhh … but there were dragons. The story is about the relationship between a dragon named “Temeraire” and his trainer and rider “Lawrence”. The thing that intrigued me about this story was the fact that “Lawrence” was a decorated captain in the English navy, and was highly honored and respected in that vocation. He captures a French ship containing a dragon egg, and it changes his life forever.

Of course, there are many things which make this a good book. The plot, character interactions and well written sentences, to name a few. The relationship between Captain Lawrence and Temeraire the dragon is actually quite moving. Oddly enough, the aspect of this story which intrigued me most was Captain Lawrence’s mid-career vocation change. I related to this somehow.

In 2006 when Renee’ and I came to Mongolia, I also left a vocation behind. I wasn’t a decorated sea-captain, but I did know a thing or two about pastoring a church. Thirteen years of trial and error (probably mostly error) had taught me a lot. Coming to Mongolia ramped up the learning curve. Culture and language learning is a steep ascent of Evererest like proportions. Moving from a familiar environment to a completely and alarmingly strange environment is disconcerting to say the least. There can also be an incredible sense of inferiority when around colleagues who have been in this strange and odd environment a little while longer. I related to Captain Lawrences struggles with his new and more experienced dragon-rider associates, as he was often marginalized by them. Howerver, while they were experienced in riding dragons, they were also complete novices when it came to the skill set required to captain a ship, thus the tension.

So often in this story, however, the preparation of being a naval captain served Lawrence well as a dragon-rider in the Royal Air Force. He had eyes which saw things from a different perspective, while in the middle of this enormously steep learning curve. The technical nature and the culture of dragon riding is far different from that of captaining a ship. Yet, in the story (which I won’t give away too much … you should read the book!), Lawrence was uniquely prepared to fulfill his purpose in a greater cause.

Here’s what I know: God is perfect in preparing us and then moving us to whatever His calling and purposes are. I would say that’s true, but I think sometimes this can get a bit hackneyed in our Christian circles. I read the book of Philippians today and was struck by the instructions of Paul to both forget “what lies behind” and strain “forward to what lies ahead” (3:13), while at the same time to “hold true to what we have attained” (3:16).

I am learning that there is so much more to learn.

I am also seeing that God’s preparations really are never finished, and in that sense, it’s really not something to spend a whole lot of time pondering.

I need to listen to the Spirit. It’s that simple. The past is the past. The future is the future, and I can’t do a whole lot about either one of them. But what I can do is listen now. Listening now helps me to learn from the past, and hear the voice of God for the future. As for God, His ways are perfect. Believing His perfection in everything is what we call faith. There are certain ways God is preparing each of us with a unique and specific skill set and with experiences to accomplish something that’s ultimately larger than any one of us.

I find great hope in that today, for some reason.

I also look forward to reading (listening to) the next book in the Temeraire series. It’s in my “listen queue.” I’ve always been fascinated with dragon lore. Now, if only there were some way to add “dragon-riding” to my current skill set…

“And we must still try or we would be leaving our friends to fight without us. I think this is what you have meant by duty, all along; I do understand, at least this much of it.”

Temeraire to Captain Lawrence


The Humility of Listening

Do you speak Mongolian?

That’s a question I get asked a lot, particularly when traveling around the US and people find out what I do. I get asked that here, sometimes as well. The answer is not really that easy.

Yes, I can speak Mongolian. Yes, I can carry on a conversation with most folks here. Yes, I can even kind of sort of teach(ish) in the local language.

But speaking is only a part. In fact, maybe just a small part.

The real question that should be asked is “Do you listen in Mongolian?”

Because I am much worse at that.

I take some solice in the fact that I’m not the only one in that boat. I’ve found that most of us who are foreigners living in a land that is not our home are not very good at listening. But that’s small solice.

Last weekend the Grain of Wheat staff took a group of college students to a local mountain to play in the snow and get some fresh air for the afternoon. We had a great time of fellowship together, followed by a fantastic night of live music at our weekly “Open Mic” night. That evening I was taking several students home, and found myself lagging in my Mongolian understanding. I could make some excuse about being tired. Poor excuse, actually. But whatever the case, instead of really listening to what the students were saying, I was simply agreeing with whatever they saying. It’s a Mongolian language trick that a lot of us who live here practice. We nod our heads up and down as if we understand everything clearly and repeatedly say the Mongolian word which is the equivolent of “Okay”.

“За, За, За, За… ” (Za, za, za, za)

I was doing that.

I wasn’t listening or understanding them at all. I was just nodding my head like a poorly performing puppet.

They all started to laugh at me, because it became apparent to them that I wasn’t getting what they were saying. One said to me, “You are a ‘yes man’” (followed by a carload of laughter) … and another “You need to listen.” Mongolians are very direct when it comes to this sort of thing.

Thankfully I was also able to laugh at myself (an important skill for living in another culture), and, in the end, we all know that we care about each other.

But, this is a much larger issue. In fact, it’s a huge issue in my field of work. It’s often not just about being understood in the individual conversation. As Americans, we are taught our entire lives that Americans and American ways are the best and the right ways. Even when it comes to talking about Christianity, and Jesus being “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (which I whole-heartedly believe and base my entire life on), we jump into “conversations” (usually monologues) without ever listening. Thus we never learn anything.

This is the epitome of arrogance, I think.

And I’ve seen a lot done in Mongolia without listening to Mongolians. Both in the business world, and in the name of Jesus. 

We plant churches without listening. We teach theology without listening. We run businesses without listening. We do a lot of activities, all of which are good, healthy … even Kingdom oriented. But without listening. If we don’t listen … I think much of our activitiy will be self-sabotaged.

I’ve come to this conclusion. My number one job as a cross-cultural worker is to learn, not to teach. I know that’s counter-intuitive to the American way. But, things here are so different from the way I am used to them being (even after eight years!). Thinking here is so different than the way I think. My first job and first priority is to listen.

If we fail to listen, I believe we fail to demonstrate the humility of Christ … and that can undermine everything we say we are here for, without us even knowing it. That’s a little scary to me.

I told my friends in the car the other evening, that I was sorry for not listening. I went on to share that this is a weakness of mine. I told them that I do tend to talk first, but that’s wrong and selfish. I want to learn to be a better listener.

I appreciate that being pointed out in my life.

Once again, I have learned something incredibly valuable from this place and this people.

“If you ask me what is the first precept of the Christian religion, I will answer first, second and third: Humility


“Don’t be sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Be sorry for the [Inuit people]. You know nothing and they must teach you.”