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How We Explain Others’ Behavior: Spoiler Alert – We are all biased hypocrites

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A major factor in the way we feel about (and get along with) other people we encounter is how we explain their behavior. The way in which we explain a particular behavior (our own or someone else’s) is called an attribution. We constantly try to explain why things happen around us. We are hardwired to fill in the blanks in the world so that things make sense to us. We observe what someone does, but we don’t know why he/she did it. This bothers our brains. Our brains want explanations, they want the blanks filled in, they want to be able to feel comfortable explaining why things happen so that they can identify patterns and predict things in the future. Feeling like we can predict things makes us feel better (even if we are completely wrong). We do this all day long, every day. And since we do this so much, in order to do this as quickly as possible, our brains take shortcuts. Given the complexity of trying to explain behavior, shortcuts are not the most accurate way to go about it. But unfortunately, we want it done quickly more than we want it done correctly. So often times these shortcuts become erroneous habits, or biases (aka an attribution bias).

How we explain our behaviors (The Self-Serving Bias):

On one hand, the typical person who has a positive view of themselves tends to explain their positive behavior using internal explanations (i.e., I held the door open for my colleague = I have a strong positive character, or I work hard at taking care of people) and to explain their negative behaviors using external explanations (i.e., I yelled at an elderly lady for taking too long to cross the street = I was having a bad day, I hadn’t had my coffee yet, I’m not a bad person).

How we explain others’ behaviors (The Fundamental Attribution Bias):

On the other hand, more often than not, our tendency is to explain other people’s behavior using internal explanations. If your boss is rude to you one day, then they are a jerk (or insert your preferred expletive) or a downright rude person. We tend to stick to the most “dependable and constant” explanation, which is someone’s personality or character. This gives us the impression that we can predict future behavior and therefore feel prepared for that future. Needless to say, this often leads us astray. The more we explain people’s negative behaviors through internal factors (they did that because they are heartless), the more negative our opinion of them becomes (I hate them for being heartless), the more uncomfortable we feel around them (I don’t want to be anywhere near that person), the more likely we are to see them as an adversary and not an ally (I now expect conflict from them).

However, if we recognize our biased tendencies, we can challenge these assumptions. Try testing this out by attributing your boss’, colleague’s, or spouse’s negative behavior to an external (situational) cause (they must be having a bad day) while reinforcing your positive view of them as a person (but they’re still a great person). See how this impacts your view of them, your compassion toward them, and your hope for positive interactions with them in the future. Hope is a powerful thing.


Shawn Healy, PhD



CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns

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