To Forgive, Correct the Fundamental Attribution Error

A little something to remember. I appreciate Dr. Somov’s eloquent way with the written word.Smile, Alison

By Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.September 23, 2009

Willingness to forgive is dependent on our explanatory or attributional style, on why we think people do what they do. People are scientists by nature: when we observe an event, we attempt to make sense of it. Making sense of the world is adaptive, necessary for survival. The more we understand about the world, the safer we feel.

Say we just had a meeting with a co-worker, and after the meeting is over, we observe the co-worker forcefully shut the door as she enters her office. Without a moment’s delay, almost automatically, we search for an explanation. And in doing so, we are limited to essentially two types of explanations for things that happen: we can either attribute the event to a force within the person (personal attribution), or to a force outside of the person (contextual attribution).

Thus, personal attribution is an explanation that holds a person accountable for a given event (”the co-worker slammed the door”). And contextual attribution is an explanation that takes the context (the situational/environmental factors) into account (”there must be a strong draft that caused the door to slam shut”).

Implications of Explanations for Relationships

How we explain what happens makes all the difference. If we attribute the event to personal factors, we are, by definition, more likely to “take it personally.” In other words, if we believe the door was “slammed shut” by the person, we are likely to make another leap of logic and conclude that it had something to do with the meeting we just had.

If, on the other hand, we speculate that it was the draft (the context), not the person, who led the door to be noisily shut, we would most likely disregard the event as unimportant and not take it “personally.”

Explanatory Style & Fundamental Attribution Error

Social Psychology has a substantial amount of research that points to the fact that people tend to make personal attributions more often than contextual attributions. It is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error: the “fundamental” part of the term refers to the fact that this type of error is wide-spread, and is, in essence, normal; the “attribution error” part of this term suggests that we are often incorrect in understanding our environment.

What this means is that we are not very good scientists, we tend to take things “personally” – and it’s normal! Our explanatory style is paranoid by default: we tend to err on the side of paranoid caution rather than nonchalance, because it is safer that way. Nature, with its emphasis on survival, is conservative like that. But the safety of this slightly paranoid, personalizing explanatory style comes at a cost of conflict…

Habitual Explanatory Styles

While we all make attributional/explanatory mistakes, some of us are more personalizing (paranoid) than others. The world has changed and the Darwinian “fittest (both physically and psychologically high-strung, i.e. paranoid and aggressive) survive” is up for long-needed revision. Given the research on the cardiac health of the so-called Type A personality and the hostile, conflict-prone individuals, the Darwinian slogan should be amended as “the laid-back and psychologically relaxed survive.”

Changing Explanatory Style

Changing the explanatory style is both a conflict prevention tool and a strategy of compassion. It involves questioning of your hypotheses and generating alternative hypotheses about what causes events around you – doing that would be good (interpersonal) science! Here’s how you can change your explanatory style and prevent conflict: when your co-worker or supervisor says or does something that makes you initially uncomfortable, remind yourself that there is a good chance that “it is contextual, not personal,” that it has to do with them moreso than with you.

The Art of Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

“Giving someone the benefit of the doubt” is a cliché we have all heard time and again. But like most clichés this suggestion is rather ambiguous and sheds little, if any light, on how to actually do it.Entertaining a contextual attribution is the process of giving somebody the benefit of the doubt.

By considering the possibility that someone’s actions might be influenced by the power of the circumstance (environment, context, situation), we, in fact, doubt whether the person means/intends to act this way towards us.

As a result, the other person benefits from our non-personalizing view of the situation, and! – as a result, we benefit from sparing ourselves an experience of a conflict.

The Benefit of the Doubt Formula

The following formula captures the essence of giving another person the benefit of your doubt.
To give benefit of the doubt, think: “It’s context, not person.” In doing so, you are doubting your own initial, knee-jerk, defensive, personalized attribution that what happened was directed at you personally.

Instead of concluding that your initial interpretation is the only right one, you are holding off the ultimate judgment, you are remaining tentative, you are reminding yourself of this human propensity to err on the side of being paranoid – and by remaining open to contextual explanations you are giving the other person the benefit of doubt (the benefit of your doubt about your initial take on the situation).

In essence, you are acknowledging to yourself that perhaps this wasn’t about me after all. This allows you to spare yourself the possibly premature judgment of the other person’s behavior. Forgiving is fore-giving – a giving of a benefit of the doubt be-fore all the facts are in. Forgiving is an advance of compassion.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time (New Harbinger, 2008) and of “Present Perfect: From Mindless Pursuit of What Should Be to Mindful Acceptance of What Is” (in press, New Harbinger Publications, in stores in July 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit

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