My intern recently told me about a topic she’s studying in her Business Finance class. The topic stuck with me and I realized that her class has something to teach me as a parent, and as a human being.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The topic she’s studying is called “fundamental attribution error.”  It is a term social psychologists use to describe the way people view their own actions versus the actions of others. According to this theory, people tend to interpret their own actions as situational, and the actions of others as dispositional. Dispositional actions spring from and reflect who we are inside: our basic disposition. Situational actions, in contrast, are triggered by our particular situation at the time.

Here’s an example. Let’s say someone cuts you off in traffic. You likely assume that the person is a dangerous driver by nature, and probably a jerk, too. When we make the same driving error, we think of it as situational; we tell ourselves, for example, “I’m not a bad driver but in that situation I had no other choice.” In fact, just this morning I made a sarcastic comment regarding a driver who’d cut me off. But I’ve accidentally done the same thing on that same tricky freeway merge. My remark about the driver being “king of the road” was a sweeping judgment about the character of the man who cut me off. When I did the same thing, I reassured myself that I had no other choice. This, my friends, is the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Once I learned about the Fundamental Attribution Error, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I considered the assumptions many of us make when we observe the actions of other parents and their kids. There is the kid who often disrupts the class, the girl who comes to school with her hair in knots, or the parent who rushes in to every meeting late. Are we willing to look beyond our judgements to consider the possible situational explanations?

What if we reverse the scenario? Do you make assumptions about how your parenting skills compare to those of the mom who never seems to raise her voice, is invariably cheerful, and brings gorgeous cupcakes to the bake sale? We bring ourselves down by such comparisons.

Once you start down this mental path, the implications are profound. For example, I have no idea what is happening when my kids are at school, with their friends, or in their private thoughts, but I sure make a lot of assumptions about their behaviors. How many times have I accused one of my children of being rude, lazy, or irresponsible when he or she was simply struggling with an unrelated situation? By lashing out, based on my assumptions, I missed the opportunity to learn more about my kids’ experience and offer support.

What I like about the Fundamental Attribution Error is that it reminds us that our automatic initial responses isn’t always accurate, that there could be much more to the story. Take a few moments to think past your own assumptions and ponder what might be going on in the other person’s life before you make a judgement.