We all go through life expecting the benefit of the doubt. Expecting that everyone in the world will understand why your shirt is wrinkled. It’s not that you’re lazy it’s just that you were in a hurry this morning. You don’t normally cut people off in traffic, it’s just that you have to get to an interview. You really are patient and thoughtful it’s just that you are starving and have a terrible headache.
We are all under extraordinary circumstances everyday and we believe that others will take that into account but that is not the case. Others do not take your personal situation into account. When you get cut off in traffic, you think that the other person is rude. When you are on a team with a guy who never pulls his weight, you believe that he is lazy and incompetent. When you see someone in a wrinkled shirt, you don’t think that they were in a hurry. You think that they’re a slob. We don’t do this because we are judgmental and mean, we do this because we don’t take into account the power a situation has over someone else, it’s a psychological phenomenon called “ the fundamental attribution error.” Where we see other’s actions (cutting someone off in traffic, dropping the ball in an important meeting and wearing a wrinkled shirt) as a reflection of their character (they’re rude, impatient and lazy) but with ourselves we recognize the pressure of circumstance. When someone drops the ball in a meeting, they are lazy but when you drop the ball in a meeting it’s because you were up all night with a sick toddler.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave others the same benefit of the doubt that we expect?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we thought about reasons why a person might be acting that way instead of just assuming that they are rude, impatient and lazy?
A way around “the fundamental attribution error” is to do just that, to imagine someone else’s circumstances before making a snap judgement. There may be a perfectly good reason why that guy is driving slow in the fast lane. Perhaps he was recently in a car accident and is nervous about driving on the highway again. If that were you, you’d expect others to understand. Give it a try, the next time you find yourself judging a stranger, imagine for a moment his or her story and circumstances the same way you’d hope someone would do for you.