Here's the Reason You Judge Others More Harshly Than You Judge Yourself

What's up with that woman who's always late to English 101? She clearly has bad time management skills, or maybe she just doesn't care about doing well in school. Either way, she definitely has no respect for the professor—probably for authority in general. Does this judgy internal monologue sound familiar? If you're attributing someone's bad behavior to who they are as a person and not stopping to consider their circumstances (in the universe we just made up, that woman is a single mother with two jobs and a full class schedule. We hope you're happy.), you're committing what's known as the fundamental attribution error.

It's What's on the Outside That Counts

In psychology, attribution theory describes our tendency to look for a cause to explain the behavior of others. That cause comes in one of two forms: internal, in terms of their personality and disposition; and external, in terms of their situation and circumstances. The fundamental attribution error, then, is the mistake you make when you attribute someone's behavior to internal causes without considering the effect that external causes might have. It happens when you blame someone's unemployment on poor work ethic without considering the state of the economy, when you decide someone who reacts harshly to gentle teasing as oversensitive without thinking it might be because past teasing hasn't been so gentle, and when you curse the bad driver who took your right of way without wondering what has him in such a hurry.

Do Unto Others

Ready for the sad truth? You hardly ever do this to yourself. Although you're more likely to blame someone else's actions on who they are as a person, you're also more likely to blame your own bad deeds on external circumstances. Doesn't seem fair, does it? Next time you leap to judgment about a person's disposition, stop and put yourself in their shoes.

Walking a mile in someone else's shoes, of course, is also called being empathetic. As Roman Krznaric writes for Greater Good Magazine, the most empathetic people share certain qualities — and all of us can hone those qualities in ourselves:

  • They're curious about strangers. Next time you're on a train or at the supermarket, ask a stranger about themselves. Try to be more "interested" than "interesting." 
  • They're good at finding commonalities. Even if you're from polar ends of the ideological divide, think about the ways you're the same.
  • They "try another person's life." Try doing something you never would: go to a different church than your own one Sunday, help out at a soup kitchen, or go to a meetup you'd never think to attend. 
  • They listen and open up to others. Really hear what other people say, and don't be afraid to be vulnerable yourself.

It's especially important, Krznaric writes, to lend this sense of empathy to your rivals and enemies. "If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy." You might be surprised how differently you see the world.

Want to know more about how to be empathetic? Check out Roman Krznaric's book, "Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 6, 2017

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