Our minds are capable of many wonderful things, from language to love. Descartes went so far as to conclude that using our minds proves that we exist. But minds are tricky things and even the best ones are not perfect. Indeed, so widespread are many of the mind’s imperfections that psychologists have given them names. Things like “confirmation bias”—the tendency to give more weight to evidence that supports what we already believe—are apparently built in to how we think and all of us have to work to overcome them. One of the more cumbersome named flaws in our thinking is the “fundamental attribution error.”
It is perhaps most easily understood by example. Consider this sad one from family conflict: Nick’s sister Julie has been taking care of their mom during her long battle with Parkinson’s. That care has included paying mom’s bills. After their mom passes, Nick discovers that Julie has emptied the joint checking and savings accounts she had with mom. Julie has always spent more money than she had and when Nick finds out that she just bought a new car, he explodes with criticism and allegations of theft. Julie is deeply hurt and lashes back at Nick with her own criticisms, including that he did nothing to help mom.
Has Julie stolen mom’s money and bought a new car? Maybe. But neither Nick nor we know this. As all of us do, especially when we are in conflict, Nick made assumptions. He committed the “fundamental attribution error” by attributing Julie’s behavior to a greedy, irresponsible character rather than the specific circumstances.
How could any circumstances justify Julie’s actions? How about this scenario: Julie discovers that in mom’s confusion, her neighbor persuaded her to add his name to the joint accounts. As soon as Julie found out, she emptied the accounts into her own so the neighbor wouldn’t steal them. Or perhaps Julie’s friend tells her (incorrectly) that as soon as mom dies, Julie will lose access to that money and asks how she’ll pay for mom’s funeral without it. Julie takes out all the money before mom dies so that mom can have a decent burial.
Even if Julie stole the money to buy a car, that doesn’t mean that everything she does is dishonest or selfish. Maybe the only way to keep her job and take care of mom was to buy a car so she could get around faster. Regardless of whether one of these explanations is actually the correct one, assuming that Julie is a terrible person doesn’t help Nick understand what has actually happened and it has needlessly jeopardized his relationship with Julie at a time of great stress when mutual support is more important than ever.
Demonizing someone because of one seemingly bad act makes it harder for us to see the complexity of any situation and leads us to make erroneous assumptions that make it much harder to resolve conflict. It doesn’t help that we tend to treat ourselves much more leniently, attributing our own acts (even truly bad ones) to circumstances rather than our character, creating even more divergence in each side’s views.
What to do? Resist the temptation to demonize someone you are in conflict with. Take a step back and take the time to imagine what about the situation could have led someone to do something that seems bad to you. If you don’t, you’re likely to miss much of what’s really happening, needlessly dragging the conflict out.