“Replace judgement with curiosity”
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came from my Masters of Law in Alternative Dispute Resolution: “Replace judgement, with curiosity.” This is something children are naturally good at. They are constantly exploring the world around them with awe and wonder, trying to understand why things are, and how they work. When you’re a blank slate, it is easy to remain curious.
As time goes on however, our experiences shape us. Our brains are good at looking for patterns in an attempt to become ever more efficient. These patterns become shortcuts for us to reach conclusions about the world in which we live. We see things that look familiar and draw from our past experiences to help explain them. The upside of this is that we are able to reach conclusions quicker. The downside is that some of those conclusions may be incorrect judgments that impact our understanding of what really happened.
What is Attribution Theory?
Enter attribution theory, which deals with: “how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment”.
There are two kinds of attribution that we apply every single day: dispositional attribution, and situational attribution. The former is when we view an internal characteristic such as a personality trait, as the explanation for behaviour. We do this often with other people. The latter is when we view situations, circumstances or environmental factors outside our control as an explanation for behaviour. We do this often with ourselves.
Driving on the 401, Two Perspectives
Here’s a scenario to help illustrate the concepts:
You’re on the 401, rushing to get home and stressed out of your mind. You’ve had a rough day. In between making a mental list of things you need to pick up at the grocery store, and drafting a mental reply to the email opposing counsel just sent you, some jerk cuts you off. What a jerk! They nearly hit you! You yell some expletives and apply your hand to the car horn generously.
Now flip this around:
You’re on the 401, rushing to get to an appointment, and stressed out of your mind. You’ve had a rough day. In between making a mental list of things you need to pick up at the grocery store, and drafting a mental reply to the email opposing counsel just sent you, you almost miss your exit. You signal, but the flow of traffic simply isn’t allowing you to switch lanes comfortably. Making a quick decision, you signal and change lanes quickly cutting someone off. You’re apologetic about it, but you really didn’t have a choice and you can’t miss the exit!
This attribution of internal factors to others (what a jerk!), and external factors (you had no choice) to ourselves is called fundamental attribution error (FAE), and we do this every single day.
Perhaps on an evolutionary level, it is often safer to commit FAE instead of pausing and considering alternatives because we are more likely to react with the former than we are to the latter. When faced with a predator, being quick to judge and react is advantageous to survival. But in today’s world, the rush to judgement may actually affect our ability to understand and empathize with one another.