Compassion hacking: rooting out the attribution bug

Today’s article is by guest-writer Lee Fitzgerald…

We judge others without knowing all the facts. (cc) Douglas Sprott.
We judge others without knowing all the facts. (cc) Douglas Sprott.

Have you ever had a friend who just seems to make one bad decision after another? As smart as they seem to be in most ways, they insist on doing stupid things that mess up their lives. It’s hard to understand because you can see the inevitable train wreck coming from a mile away–but they just keep playing on the tracks, oblivious to all common sense.

What if I told you that they weren’t making the error, you were? In fact, there’s even a name for this error: the fundamental attribution error. It’s a special kind of double standard that’s hard-coded into the normal human operating system and it’s a major stumbling block to being compassionate toward others. As I said, it’s a normal part of our programming, but it’s a bug. Like good programmers, we’re going to root this bug out and deal with it. Let’s start by looking at what it is and how it works.

When we think about our own decisions, we take into account a whole host of situational factors. We recognize that we sometimes make bad decisions, but we put them in the context of what was going on in our lives at the time. Even when we know we’ve made a mistake, we understand why we did it. When we think about other people’s bad decisions, though, we tend to attribute them to fundamental character flaws. It’s not that they were in a bad situation, it’s because they’re flaky, stupid, weak, or even evil.

We don’t use this double-standard because we like being mean. We do it because we don’t know their story as well as we know our own. We can’t possibly know all the factors that went into their decisions–and even if we did, we still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be them. Simply put, when we judge ourselves, we’ve got the inside story; when we judge others, we’re on the outside looking in.

Here’s an example I bet most of us can relate to. A mother comes home from work and sees an overflowing wastebasket in the kitchen. Despite reminding her son over and over again that he needs to take the garbage out when he gets home from school, he went straight to his room and started playing video games. “Where did I go wrong with that kid,” she thinks, “He has just one job in this house and he can’t even do that? How can he be so lazy and inconsiderate?”

She barges into her son’s room and yells at him for not taking the garbage out. She later feels bad for flying off the handle, but she knows that it’s come at the end of a long, hard day. She got a flat tire on the way to work that morning, her boss gave her hell for coming in late, and her best friend ignored her texts all day. The garbage in the kitchen was just the last straw.

The mother in this example knows she was wrong to explode the way she did, but she understands the context of that behavior. She doesn’t write herself off as a bad mother simply because she got overwhelmed by a bad day and made one bad choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at the time. It just happened. When she thought about her son’s failure to take out the trash, on the other hand, she didn’t know the whole story of his day at school–his girl problems, or getting cut from the basketball team–she just sees that behavior in isolation and judges him as lazy and inconsiderate.

If a parent’s love can’t cut through the fundamental attribution error, then you can imagine how tenacious this little bug really is. And if a mother commits this error when dealing with a child whom she loves more than life itself, what hope is there for a spouse, a colleague, or a stranger in traffic?

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Now that we know what this bug is, how do we deal with it? The solution is not to write off everyone’s bad behavior and never hold them accountable. (If the mother in the above example did this, for example, she’d never discipline her son and he’d never learn responsibility.)  The key to dealing with this bug is simply recognizing when it happens and changing course appropriately. When you catch yourself judging someone, just stop for a moment and notice you’re doing it. You don’t have to try to suppress it, but neither do you want to automatically accept it as true and act on it. (Mindfulness practice gives us the skills to do this kind of thing.)

By giving yourself this moment to reflect, you create a little room to make a new and better decision. The mother in our example might notice that she’s labelled her son “lazy” and take a breath. Maybe she’ll talk to her son about his day to try to learn his “back story.” Or maybe she’ll just remind him to take garbage out. In any case, taking the time to simply notice the bug in action will tend to stop it in its tracks and give her the space she needs to make a better decision. We can’t eliminate this bug entirely, but we can limit the damage it causes. By giving ourselves space to make better decisions, we can become more compassionate people.


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lee-fitzgeraldLee Fitzgerald is former Outreach Director for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. He likes to learn and create. He has held more than 20 jobs since the age of 14, in fields ranging from manufacturing to mental health. In addition to writing, photography, and making music, Lee has a regular meditation practice in the Shinzen Young/Basic Mindfulness tradition. He is currently working on a PhD in psychology and working as a training and development manager. Lee lives with his wife and three children in Pennsylvania.

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