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  • Digital Detangler

When Gritting Your Teeth Isn't Enough

Today's blog entry is a selection from my upcoming book. It explores how you can use insights from an obscure psychological term to change stubborn bad habits. Enjoy!

The Fundamental Attribution Error sounds complicated and while it is counter-intuitive, once explained, not only does it make sense, but it also provides us with new ways of thinking about behavior change. The Fundamental Attribution Error is most easily explained by looking at a real example:

When my wife and I moved to Nashville, we knew almost no one. Fortunately, we did have a mutual friend, Emily, who had moved to Nashville for college and she graciously offered to introduce us to her friends. One night shortly after arriving in Nashville, she had a party on the rooftop of her condo. She invited all of her Nashville friends so that we could make some new connections. Were this a reality show and you had asked her Nashville friends about my wife and I, I can almost guarantee you they would have mentioned that we were shy or timid or withdrawn. But if I were asked to describe my wife and I, shy, timid, or withdrawn would never be mentioned. In fact, most of the time I consider myself to be quite outgoing. What is going on here?

In the situation I just described there are two types of people, Nashville people and new people, my wife and me. The Nashville people know everyone at the party except for two people, my wife and me. On the other hand, my wife and I only knew two people at the party, the other of the two of us and Emily. So, if my wife and I acted shy at the party it was only because we were on very shaky social footing compared to the rest of Emily’s friends, who had at least some sense of how a conversation more exciting than traffic or the weather may go. They knew lots of information about the social landscape and that gave them more options for how to behave.

The story about being misunderstood at Emily’s party perfectly illustrates the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is our tendency to overestimate personality factors and to underestimate situational factors in influencing behavior. Think about that deeply for a moment and you’ll start to see it all around you. Is your toddler screaming in the back seat because he is fussy, or could it be he’s sitting in his own excrement? Did your coworker get promoted ahead of you because the manager likes her more, or could there be some qualifications or experience that make her more qualified?

At this point, you’re beginning to appreciate the power of the Fundamental Attribution Error, but it comes with an unsettling side as well. On a deep level, we depend on the concept of a personality. This is not to say that personalities don’t exist, they just don’t influence behavior as much as we often expect. While we like to think of ourselves as going from situation A to situation B to situation C and behaving in roughly the same manner, the truth is that much of our behavior depends on the situations we find ourselves in. Of course, this is obvious at the extremes: you may be an honest person generally, but if you were starving, stealing a loaf of bread becomes a much more likely option. Conversely, even a misogynist could be faithful if stuck on an island with only one partner.

All this is interesting, but here is the important insight: If you want to act a certain way or be a certain type of person, construct an environment around yourself that makes you more likely to act that way or be that type of person.


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