Pocket of Joy: A More Positive Outlook on Humans (thanks to learning about the “fundamental attribution error”)

We’ve all been there: Someone’s cell phone goes off at the movies (or in a group exercise class) and we think, “Who does that bozzo think they are?” When our phone goes off we think, “Boy, what a silly mistake; I must be tired.” (Yes, I have left my cell on during Pilates. Bad Kathleen. I remember the class. It was at Ultimate Athletics. I was embarrassed and I made sure to never do it again, but I didn’t think I was evil or self-centred — just forgetful and discombobulated.)

We don’t tend to attribute our mistakes to our disposition; we attribute our less-than-ideal actions to external factors — we were tired, overwhelmed, mistaken, etc. We are “primarily a good person who sometimes — when pushed by circumstance — can make a mistake.” If we make a mistake driving, say speeding, we are “a good driver who has a reason to speed — there are extenuating circumstances.”

We tend to frame other people’s inconsiderate actions (i.e., “a mistake” when made by us) as an illustration of some innate quality — the cell ringing at an inopportune time must mean the owner is inconsiderate and selfish. Someone cuts us off in traffic, they are a shitty driver who is probably an idiot. This is especially true for people we don’t know or don’t think highly of. If you are in a negative absorbing state with your boss, colleague, family member, etc., every mistake they make is simply a confirmation of their malicious or idiotic disposition.

This disconnect, called the “fundamental attribution error,” is a typical cognitive bias. Our brains rationalize our own actions differently than the actions of others. Psychologists may call it a “cognitive bias” … I call it a form of hypocrisy.

We are a good person who makes mistakes. Other people are idiots who royally fuck up.

How is this a “pocket of joy”? So far, I am probably not sounding very joyful!! But since learning of this bias, I am consciously re-training my brain to make my “go-to” response an understanding that my fellow humans are simply “human” — vs malicious or idiotic — and thus prone to mistakes. (Tim Ferriss often says something along the lines of “don’t ascribe to malice what could otherwise be ascribed to absentmindedness, exhaustion, being overwhelmed, being human, or simply being out of one’s depth”). I now make a concerted effort to have a more generous interpretation of everyone’s actions — i.e. to let shit slide off my back like water off a duck.

Going about life grouchy, thinking badly of everyone, is emotionally exhausting and toxic. I am enjoying my lighter interface with the world!!

My life lesson is not that I “need to be perfect” or that I should let people walk all over me. Rather, I need to be aware that this bias exists and thus give other humans the same benefit of the doubt I give myself — and that I hope they will give me. Now, if bad behaviour becomes a pattern — or someone actively attempts to hurt me — then I am all for blaming their disposition!! Until proven otherwise, humans are just humans muddling along in the world, doing the best they can!