The fastest way to get beyond “Oh they’re just…” justifications
Why is he so fat?
Why is she so anxious?
Why do they show up late?
Why are they so unreceptive?
We are all folk psychologists. We have to be. All organisms adapt to fit their environments. We’re highly social beings so our environment is mostly other people. We invest a lot in interpreting one another’s psychological behavior.
Still, we’re notoriously bad at interpreting even-handedly. Whether for cognitive or motivated reasons, we suffer from attribution bias, the tendency to explain other people’s failings as character flaws and our failings as a function of circumstances:
My sentence, if I had my druthers
Would be different from that of my brother’s
No proof need be shown:
Their faults are their own,
But me, I’m a victim of others.
It’s not easy to overcome attribution bias by a sheer act of will. There’s another approach I find works better:
Before you judge, inventory the range of possible explanations for people’s apparently strange behavior. Here I’ll apply this approach to explain why Max is fatter and Jean is more anxious than you:
- Appetite: Max desires food more intensely than you do. Jean is compelled to err on the side of caution more than you are.
- Internal consequences: Max’s metabolism is slower than yours. Food makes him fatter more readily. Jean has higher sensitivity than you do. A little trigger sends her anxieties through the roof.
- Self-control: Max has weaker willpower about eating than you do. Jean’s power to override her emotions is weaker than yours.
- Means: Max has plenty of money for food. Jean has plenty of time to worry.
- Access to supply: Max has regular access to fattening foods. Jean has much to worry about.
- Rewards: Food is more ecstatically rewarding for Max than it is for you. Worrying aloud calms Jean more than it calms you.
- Short-term costs: Eating a lot doesn’t make Max as uncomfortable as it does you. Jean’s friends don’t give her a hard time about her anxious talk.
- Long-term costs: Max is already old so the life-shortening effects of overeating aren’t a concern. Jean won’t lose friends by expressing her anxieties.
- Time horizon: Max and Jean have a shorter time horizon than you do. They don’t pay much attention to long-term consequences.
- History: Max grew up poor and never had enough to eat. Jean had a very traumatic childhood and hasn’t gotten over it.
- Substitutes: Max has few other ways to have fun. He has little to do with his day other than eat. Jean has little to distract her from her anxieties.
A few tips about applying this approach:
- The inventory applies equally well to traits you like and don’t like.
- The list is complicated. Applying it takes work that we tend to avoid by saying “Oh, it’s easily explained as just this.”
- The best explanation can be a combination. We never do anything for just one reason; it never has just one effect.
- Obviously, some factors in the inventory won’t apply.
- Inventory neutrally; then judge. Don’t judge and then inventory.
- Inventorying involves guesswork. You work from what evidence you have, and it’s always possible you’ve guessed wrong.
- When it’s someone whose choices have inescapable consequences for you, judging is a practical necessity. You have to figure out how to deal with the strange behavior—whether to accommodate, push, or try to distance yourself from it, either by taking psychic space or leaving. You’ll use your judgment as motivation for whatever choice you make about how to deal with the behavior.
- Try to honor other people’s assessment of your behavior too. Don’t assume you can override their assessment by authoritatively justifying your behavior.