Have you ever had—while driving—that extraordinary experience where anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, while anyone driving faster is a maniac?
That, my dear reader, is an example of the Correspondence Bias in full-blown action.
Generally, this bias refers to the tendency to infer that people’s behavior corresponds mainly to their personality, despite their behavior being explainable by the situations in which they occur.
In other words, we tend to see a far too direct correlation between people’s actions and their personalities.
We wrongly assume that a person’s action is based more on what “kind” of person he/she is—rather than the social and environmental forces at work on him/her—and this often leads to erroneous behavior explanations.
Too abstract? Here is a scenario:
You see someone kick a vending machine for no visible reason and you assume that he/she is “an angry person.” Nevertheless, when YOU kick the vending machine, it’s because the bus was late; the subway broke down; your report is overdue; your stock portfolio value dropped; and now, that damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the third day in a row. Surely you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine in that situation.
Our mental flaw is that we attribute our own personal actions to our situations; seeing our behavior as perfectly normal responses to experience.
Still, when someone else kicks a vending machine, we don’t see his/her past history trailing behind in the air; we see just the kick—for no reason that we know about—and we think that this must be a naturally angry person, since he/she lashed out without any provocation.
Yet consider the prior probabilities. There are more late buses in the world, and there are more occasions of dropping portfolio values than people born with unnaturally high anger levels that cause them to sometimes spontaneously kick vending machines.
This bias (also often called the “Fundamental Attribution Error”) makes us over-attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositions, while reversing this tendency for ourselves.
In order to understand why people behave the way they do, we must firstly realize that everyone sees themselves as behaving normally, because most people see themselves as perfectly normal. Even people that we hate, people who do terrible things, are not exceptional mutants.
Here is another entirely hypothetical scenario linked to investing:
You hear about someone selling part of his long-term investments after a sudden market correction, and you label him as “having no guts”. You however sell some of your investments, because you feel you have an urgent need of that money (for whatever reason).
Once you understand that scenario, you wouldn’t be surprised by human events.
We have one lens in which we judge others, and another lens for ourselves. A generalized message would be met with the critical judgmental lens, while a personal message, with the sympathetic lens.
And that’s the reason why making someone feel as though he/she is the only person in the room isn’t just good social intelligence, it’s also very effective communication.
So, are you ready to break your habit of making Fundamental Attribution Errors?
Because change is inevitable, except, of course, from vending machines.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can alter his life simply by altering his attitude of mind.” — William James
“Things do not change; we change. “— Henry David Thoreau
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw