Last summer I read my first Kindle book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s a perfect book for the kindle since it’s over 1,000 pages, 100 of which are footnotes, vital to understanding the book, if understanding is really fully possible. While I was glad for the experience, the book is not for everyone. What is for everyone is his Commencement Address given at Kenyon college, where he discusses the way we experience our lives in contrast to the way we view others lives.
I was reminded of this speech because twice in the last week I came across different descriptions of the Fundamental Attribution Error. This essentially states that we are prone to assess the cause of action in others as coming from their personality rather than the circumstances they are in. One example last week came from Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirkey. He discusses how Generation-X was at one time described as slackers without ambition. This assessment was made during an economic slump and as the economics picked up, the Gen-Xers suddenly went to work with gusto. They are now described as having an entrepreneurial spirit. Actions (acting like a slacker vs. being industrious) are heavily dependent on the circumstances (economy). Generational observations, however, ignore circumstances and commit the Fundamental Attribution Error by assigning observed actions to some character trait in that generation. Even when subsequent predictions came to opposite conclusions (industrious vs lazy), they continue to be made.
This error applies to us at a personal level as well. When someone cuts us off on the road, we likely attribute this to them being a jerk; however, the circumstances might be that they were rushing home because their wife was going into labor. Or when you call someone you don’t know, and they are short with you. Are they just a rude person? Or was it that their two-year old just threw a tantrum right before the phone rang? Since we are unable to know most of the circumstances that affect others around us, we make judgments about their personality. We attribute their actions as coming from the core of who they are.
However, when we judge our own actions, we judge them entirely based on circumstances. We are fully aware of our own circumstances and see our actions as stemming from them. We think: “oops, I just cut that person off; I didn’t see them in the other lane” instead of what we often think about others: “What a jerk!”. We know it was just a mistake, the other driver thinks it’s our personality.
Because this error is common to all of us, knowing about it can help us pause when we make a rash judgment about another person or even an entire group of people. Instead, we can take a moment to recognize the many circumstances that are unknown to us and if we are creative, can imagine circumstances where their action might be justified. Doing this can help us feel less offended and ultimately, much happier.
[If you haven’t already and have some time, I highly recommend you check out the commencement speech. It covers a deeper theme about thinking about what we think about and has a good joke at the beginning to boot. As always, let me know what you think. Also, if you are interested in what I have been reading, I keep my reading list up to-date in my Books Section]