Your coworker is late. You’re angry. “He’s always late!” you say to yourself. Instead of thinking of the myriad of external sources that could potentially explain his tardiness, you default to the fact that he is always late. Does this sound familiar?
When we do this, we are guilty of the fundamental attribution error, a psychological theory that, when controlled, can greatly improve relationships both at work and at home. It might seem like a random post for a blog catering to startups, but I’ve personally found that awareness of this tendency has lowered my stress levels and made me a better entrepreneur. When you get really good, you notice when other people become guilty of making the error, and you see how embarrassing of a blooper it can be.
The idea is that when bad things happen to us, we are more likely to blame external factors. However, when bad things happen to others, we’re more likely to blame internal factors, such as their personality or dispositional tendencies. This leads us to view others in a negative light, while simultaneously expecting them to view us in a favorable light when something bad happens to us. Human nature…I know.
Here’s another way of putting it:
In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.
The good thing about the fundamental attribution error is that when we learn to recognize it in practice, we can learn to control it. The biggest thing to do: cut people slack. In fact, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project advises that recognition of the fundamental attribution error and the subsequent cutting of slack to people can be a strategy for achieving happiness. “ …Always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don’t take things personally.”
So if your next meeting is running late, catch up on some news and greet the person with a smile on your face and an open mind…you won’t regret it.