Imagine we're in traffic, and someone cuts us off. Our first response is to think, What a jerk. We attribute their behavior to their character. We quickly identify and judge them. They are rude, can't drive well, and obviously have the habit of offending people on the road.
Now imagine we're in traffic, but we cut someone off. What's our first thought about ourselves? I can tell you this, it isn't, I'm such a jerk. I'm rude. And I can't drive well. Why not?
The reason is "fundamental attribution error," a tendency to attribute other people's behavior to their fundamental character, but our own behavior to the situation and the circumstances. Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to reason that we are saints and they are jerks. It's a form of the fixed mindset, something I've been thinking about lately since I read Carol Dweck's book on the subject.
When we cut someone off on the freeway, we tell ourselves something like this: I didn't mean to do that. I didn't see him, and didn't realize I had to get over that quickly. We explain our own failings as exceptions to the rule, because we are saints. But we explain other people's failings to general principle, because they are jerks.
In a previous post, I wrote about the fixed versus growth mindset (from reading Dweck), and what it can do to prevent or promote positive transformation. Fundamental attribution error is simply the tendency to see ourselves and others from a fixed mindset. We see ourselves fixed as saints. We see others fixed as jerks.
If we are saints, then we can't own up to bad behavior. We deflect blame, make excuses, and get offended when people correct or "judge" us.
If they are jerks, then we can't encourage them to change their behavior. It's pointless to encourage change because their character is fixed. They can't change and they won't change. That's just who they are. Whenever we attribute a fixed mindset to others, we don't give them room to grow. We confront them in a demeaning way. We use language that prevents hope for change. We become part of the problem instead of the solution.
Truth is, no one is a complete jerk and no one a complete saint. On a scale from zero to ten, where zero is jerk and ten is saint, we're all somewhere in the middle. We do good things. We do bad things. We are good in some areas, not so good in others.
It's also true that we can change our numbers. We can admit our failings and not excuse them, because we're not saints. And we can learn to get better, because we are not jerks. Wherever we are on the scale today doesn't mean we need to be there tomorrow. We can commit ourselves to growth.
Erik is the author of the personal finance small group and seminar program, Breaking Free: Financial Strategies that Transform Debt into Wealth. Take our free MoneyFinder Quiz to see just how much payoff Breaking Free can create for you!