It’s hard to get to know people. Just when we think we’ve got somebody figured out, time and time again we are pleasantly surprised. A person we thought wasn’t interesting turned out to be extremely dynamic. Conversely, those we thought to be fascinating turned out to be less than extraordinary.
What was the disconnect? What caused us to think one way about somebody, only to find out that person is not who we thought they were?
The easy answer is time. The more time we spend with people, the better we understand their character and personality. But this doesn’t paint the full picture. In fact, time can be a misleading variable when getting to know others.
Aside from time, there is another important factor that must be taken into account when evaluating others. This other factor is context. But before delving deeper into evaluating people in different contexts, we need to first understand the danger of evaluating others through limited contexts.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
What is the fundamental attribution error? In academic terms, it’s defined as “the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior.”*
In simpler terms, when somebody else does something bad it’s a reflection of their character, but when you do something bad it’s because you’re having a bad day or you have a legitimate reason to justify your behavior.
For example, let’s say you’re on the highway and somebody cuts you off. You immediately think “wow, what a jerk.” Now let’s say you’re the one who cuts somebody off. You wouldn’t call yourself a jerk. You had a legitimate reason to cut the other person off since you’re rushing home to catch the big game. You interpret your behavior as an isolated situational act, while you interpret the behavior of another person as a reflection of their character.
The fundamental attribution error occurs when we observe behavior in a single context. Our brains are lazy. As a result, we generalize the behavior in one context and assume that’s the person behavior in all contexts.
How do we defeat the fundamental attribution error?
The solution is to increase the contexts in which we spend time with another person. To truly get to know somebody, it’s not the amount of time spent with that person, but rather the amount of time spent with that person in a variety of contexts. The error occurs when we evaluate people in limited situations. Therefore, to know someone better, we need to increase the number of situations spent with that person.
Focus on spending time with somebody at different times in the day, with different people, and in different environments.
Somebody grumpy in the morning could be super friendly in the afternoon. Somebody quiet at work could be very chatty outside of work. And yes, somebody who’s a jerk on the highway could be a total rockstar of a person.
Before claiming you know somebody, make sure you observe that person in a variety of contexts. If somebody says to you, “you don’t know me,” what they might be saying is “you only know me in this one context, which isn’t indicative of my behavior in other contexts.”
If somebody does turn out to be a jerk, at least you’ve done your homework. But if you put the work in and realize somebody you thought was a dud is actually a great person, then the effort was worthwhile.
*Information about Fundamental Attribution Error taken from Ethics Unwrapped
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