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Why you suck but I don't

Ok, ok,you don’t suck. Jeez, don’t get all excited! But people committing the fundamental attribution error think you do.

The fundamental attribution error relates to how we interpret things when somebody screws up. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people’s default tendency is to apply an egregious double-standard in this regard: we interpret our own failings as the result of circumstance, but we assume the failings of others are the result of obvious and tragic character flaws within them.

Or in other words, “I was late because I hit all the red lights and got stuck behind an old granny in a land-yacht who didn’t understand what the gas pedal was for, but you were late because you obviously don’t know how to plan and manage your time.”

We commit this double standard for a pretty obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but comparatively little about other people’s circumstances. We don’t see other people walking around with their circumstances all nicely labeled for us. We don’t know if a co-worker was late for an important meeting because he really is lousy at time management, or because he was taking a call from his mother who lives three states away, panicking because his father had slipped in the shower and she didn’t know what to do.

Had we known that, we’d likely have cut the guy some slack for taking five minutes to talk his mom down and get her to dial 9-1-1. But we can’t see that. All we see is him coming into the meeting late and with a sheepish look on his face.

That’s the fundamental attribution error. And like most human behaviors, there’s a lot writers can do with it.

Create empathy. If you want readers to empathize with a somebody who screws up, just make sure they know the circumstantial reasons contributing to the screw-up. Novels give us a freedom that real life doesn’t, which is to show our readers the circumstances attached to any characters we care to. Use this power wisely.

Show positive personality traits. If you want to show a character as being fair-minded, empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, et cetera, then show them working hard not to commit the fundamental attribution error. Show them trying to think of what circumstances might have contributed to another character’s mistakes. Simply letting a character wait for evidence to come in, rather than rushing to judge someone, can work wonders for casting that character as a thoughtful, considerate person.

Show denial. Sometimes, people really do screw up because of core character flaws, and yet, under the right circumstances others will work very, very hard indeed to find a circumstantial explanation for that person’s failings. Wives who cover for their husbands’ alcoholism (or vice versa) is perhaps the most cliché example, but there are many others. While we never have all the information about someone else’s circumstances, we always have some; the difference between denial and commendable fair-mindedness is in how we heed or ignore the evidence we do have, especially when ignoring it leads to bad consequences for us.

Create a Pollyanna character. A Pollyanna is a naively or hopelessly optimistic character. One who always looks on the bright side, despite any and all evidence to the converse. Applied to people, this philosophy can certainly be a good thing (see show positive personality traits, above). Still, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Imagine that you have a co-worker who is habitually late, and another co-worker who always gives that person the benefit of the doubt, or even goes so far as to invent hypothetical excuses on that person’s behalf ("I’ll bet he just had car trouble"). What would you think about that second co-worker? Chances are, that’s not someone whose judgment you’d particularly trust, since they’re ignoring what is obvious for all to see.

Create a hothead or unreliable flake. The flip-side is that if you want to if you want to show a character being judgmental, showing them rushing to judgment—committing the fundamental attribution error—is a great way to go, especially if you couple it with that same character going to great lengths to explain away his own failings to others. This is the person who always thinks the best of himself and the worst of others. Note, for this you’ll need to be using a narrative point-of-view that allows the character and the reader to have different information, so the reader can empathize with the mistake-maker, while hothead character rushes to judge.

Create a dramatic twist. Finally (and this is one of my favorites), if you want to spring a reversal on the reader in which you take a character from being viewed negatively to being viewed positively, let the reader and any relevant POV characters commit this error, but then later, reveal to them the circumstances. That is, show the character making a mistake, and other characters attributing it to the mistake-maker’s personality. If you’re not too heavy-handed about it, chances are the reader will go right along with it and make the exact same mistake themselves. Then later, you can reveal the circumstances leading up to that person’s mistake, and use that information to pivot everyone’s attitude about that person.

Got any other great ways to take advantage of the fundamental attribution error? Share them in the comments!

June 03, 2010 23:45 UTC

Tags: character, fundamental attribution error, judgment, pollyanna, reversals

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