In any conflict situation, we immediate attribute the cause of the problem to a defect in personality.

If there is a fight between you and me, you will blame my personality or my disposition (“You never listen!”) not the situation causing the distraction. If a professor is strict in class, the students will label the professor a “Changez Khan”, not the situation which caused the professor to behave strictly. If your experience with a company is bad, you will attribute it to the company, not the situation. If a child has behaved badly, we ask, “What is wrong with you?” instead of asking “What made you do this?” We blame the person, not the situation.

On the other hand, if I have a fight with you, I will justify my loud voice to the situation, not to a defect in my personality. If I am strict in a group meeting, I will blame the situation, not my disposition. If I am the person from the company, I will blame the situation, not the company. A child will say, “He made me do this…I am not like this!”

So there is always a bias in judging a situation. We tend to take one data point and make a generalisation about the person. We then use that generalisation to predict all future interactions. If you have a bad experience in your college or your company, you will attribute it to the college or company, and then generalise all future interactions about that college (‘Don’t send you children there, it is a bad college!”) or the company (“Don’t join that company, or buy its products – it is a bad company!”)

But if you were part of that college, you would say, “There is nothing wrong with the college, the situation with that student was bad!” or if you were part of the company, you would say, “He could not adjust to the culture” or “One batch of products was bad, we have instituted better quality control!”

This phenomenon is called Fundamental Attribution Error,  and is a basis of most social interactions. It is fundamental because this phenomena (attribution to “personality” for others and attribution to “situation” for self)  cuts across cultures, time and geography.

Our mental models are created because of this. When we observe an incident and jump to a conclusion, that conclusion is typically a generalisation of the personality (“All men are dogs!”), rather than an attribution to the situation. We therefore tend not to give the benefit of doubt. We then tend to justify this attribution by selecting   those examples that support our position.

Knowing that we have this “observation bias”, should we not ask, “What situation led to this?” which may allow you to do a root cause analysis, rather that jump to a generalisation? Do we really have all the data to jump to conclusions that it is a personality defect?

  1. February 21, 2012

    True. All logics and psychological thoughts could be fit in such situations. Human behavior is having some patterns. A person who knows that ground is alright will still blame it for poor performance. May be because sometimes we need to shift blame to highlight some of the issues.


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