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Have you ever noticed that when you make an error, mess up or miscalculate, you tend to point to some environmental, organizational, situational or life factor as an excuse? In other words, it’s not your fault. It’s not about you. It’s not your own character that’s at fault. But on the other hand, when someone else messes up, how often do you find some character flaw in them you assume caused them to behave in the way they did?

What’s operating here is a dynamic called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). In essence, the FAE says that when we judge the actions of other people, we tend to focus on their personality, values, motives or attitudes while discounting their immediate situation or life circumstances as a reason for their behavior. We assume that we “know” the other person and then judge them on that basis, ignoring the broader context which may be influencing them.

Consider these situations.

  • On the way out of the building, I pass a co-worker and say “hi.” She acts like she doesn’t even see me, eyes down, nary a word. I assume she’s thoughtless, self-absorbed, unfriendly or even an absent-minded jerk.
  • My partner returns home after work and immediately goes to his computer. Not a “hello” or even a glance, just a bee-line movement past me to rush online. I choose to make a judgment about how disrespectful and uncaring he is.

In both circumstances, I have made judgments and assumptions that point to the other’s personality or character on the basis that I “know” them and what’s going on in their life.

What I don’t know
In the first example, the individual just learned her seventeen-year-old son was in a car accident and has been rushed to hospital in critical condition. In the second, my partner was told at 4:45 pm there was a chance he would be let go next week and he should check his email tonight for further information (unavailable when he was at the office) about the company’s possible next steps.

The important question is why it seldom occurs to us that someone may be “otherwise engaged” in deep thought or reflection based on some challenging life circumstance or event.

The point here is to be self-aware, conscious of the degree to which so much of our habitual and patterned behaviors – and especially our interactions with others – are driven by ego, judgment and reactivity.

The Antidote to the FAE
Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg observed that “when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.”

One way to understand the FAE phenomena is to be curious about how we view and connect with others, be it at work or at home. What is the “frame” or context within which we relate to others?

Try this exercise:
Imagine three walls. On one there are ten framed pictures (all ten are the same picture) of the individual in the first situation above. On the second wall there are ten similar pictures of your partner and on the third wall, ten of yourself. Under each frame is a blank label.

Next, label each individual in the pictures in any way you wish – with a word, or short phrase.

When done, consider the labels, including those you pinned on yourself. How many of the labels reflect a “task-orientation” and how many reflect a “person-orientation”? How many reflect an objective, impersonal, functional, role-playing or positional orientation? How many reflect a subjective, heart-felt, personal or human orientation?

Who’s judging – and the benefit of the doubt
These labels provide insight into what’s operating in us when we judge others. When we come from an impersonal, officious or “business-like” orientation, (or even at home with our partners or spouses, or our personal friends), we’re more inclined to be harsh, objective and judgmental.

On the other hand, when we come from a heart-felt, subjective and personal orientation, it’s often easier to be more conscious of our reactivity and so more willing to relate to someone as a person rather than a function. And it’s easier, too, to give others the benefit of the doubt without making assumptions about their character, attitudes, values or motives. If we accept that we don’t know chapter and verse about someone else (even our closest friends or loved ones), we are much less likely to judge them and much more likely to accept that their life circumstances and context can affect their behavior. Without assumptions and inferences, we are already on the way to becoming more empathic, compassionate and accepting.

Why the FAE is our default mode
Simple. It’s easier (and less scary) to judge others than it is to get to know ourselves. Judging others lets us off the hook of self-awareness, self-responsibility and self-management. Judging others’ motives and values allows us to forego looking at the truth of the values and motives that underpin our own behaviors and attitudes.

What’s more, because we don’t know (and/or don’t care) about what’s really going on in someone else’s life, we find it easier to focus on the person, rather than their context, assuming, comparing and criticizing based on what we think we know about them.

Native Americans approach the FAE in this way: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”

Another way of looking at it is that everyone is in Chapter Three of their life. No one knows what transpired in Chapters One and Two. You are no different. Similarly, when they get up the morning, no-one says, “I’m going to be a jerk today.” So don’t assume you know their motives for acting.

When you approach life with integrity and authenticity, you are much more likely to forego the FAE trap and avoid prejudge others. Show up in that frame of mind and acceptance, forgiveness, empathy and understanding will soon follow.

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • Am I prone to inferring what I think is motivating another to act negatively?
  • When I behave inappropriately, do I usually try to justify my negative behavior?
  • Do I own my negative actions?
  • Do I ever consider how I’d behave if I were in another’s moccasins?
  • Am I willing to consider unseen causes for another’s negative behavior?
  • Can I be compassionate toward others who behave inappropriately?
  • Am I generally judgmental about others? What does that get me?
  • Is there someone on my team or in my family about whom I can be less judgmental, and more understanding?
  • Am I a master of the art form of blame?
  • How do I feel when someone judges me without understanding my life context?



(c) 2014, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, or pvajda(at)

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