By Jeff Reber
A couple Sundays ago I was sitting up on the stand at church and found myself scanning the audience. I noticed each family sitting in the pews. In some cases, I was struck by children sitting quietly and even listening to the speaker. In other cases, parents were literally wrestling with their children to keep them separated from each other. Some children were playing on ipads and telephones while others colored or played with cars. Occasionally, a child would erupt in loud crying and a parent would rush to the door with the child in his or her arms to get the child out of the chapel as quickly as possible.
As I watched all of this play out I thought of a phenomenon studied by social psychologists known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The FAE is based on the idea that whenever we observe human behavior we tend to analyze the behavior in terms of what might have caused it to occur. Two possible causes stand out: 1) the behavior might be caused by the person, or 2) the behavior could be caused by the situation. If a person runs into a dark movie theater and yells “Fire!” we want to know if there really is a fire and that is the reason for the outburst, or whether the person just likes to get a reaction out of people and needs to be escorted out of the theater.
In order to make an accurate attribution, observers would need to observe all the personal and situational factors involved in the behavior and then make their judgment. The problem is that people rarely have the time, ability, and/or motivation to conduct a thorough analysis of the personal and situational factors that could account for the behavior, and therefore rely more on their impressions and rules of thumb in their judgment, which often follow a predictable pattern. Indeed, researchers have found in study after study that observers almost alwaysoveremphasize the personal factors in making an attribution and underemphasize the possible situational causes. This tendency is so pronounced that it has been labeled “fundamental” by social psychologists.
Consider a popular demonstration of the FAE. A professor of an introductory psychology class asks for two volunteers. One volunteer is randomly assigned the role of “Quizmaster” and the other is assigned the role of “Contestant.” The Quizmaster is asked to come up with 10 quiz questions that can be on any topic or area of expertise they know of. The Quizmaster is then instructed to ask the Contestant each question out loud in front of the whole class. The Contestant does his or her best to answer each question. The Quizmaster lets the contestant and class know if the answer is correct or not and gives the correct answer. The contestant often gets several wrong as he or she goes, especially when the Quizmaster asks questions about obscure or specialized things. After the quiz is over, the audience is asked to rate the intelligence of each volunteer. Despite knowing that each volunteer was randomly assigned to their role, the students’ average intelligence rating of the Quizmaster is higher than their average rating of the Contestant. How is this possible? It should be obvious that the Quizmaster was randomly selected for that role and chose questions for which he or she knew the answer. If the roles were reversed the other volunteer would have appeared smarter. How could the audience miss that obvious fact?
The answer lies in what social psychologists describe as the “invisibility of the situation.” Even though the students should recall that the volunteers were randomly selected and the Quizmaster knew all the answers to his or her own questions, those situational factors tend to fade into the background and are forgotten or underemphasized. The audience focuses on the people who are standing in front of them and behaving, not on the situation, and thus are more likely to attribute the behaviors to their personalities and traits. Consequently, the Quizmaster is judged to be a smarter person than the contestant.
I would like to add an addendum to the FAE that is unique to children and their parents, which is that when a child behaves there is a tendency to attribute the cause of the child’s behavior to the traits and qualities of the parents as much, if not more than the child. This is due in part to the fact that parents often share genes with their children, come from the same home environment as their children, and are seen as somewhatresponsible for the child, with that responsibility adjusted to some degree for the child’s age. Thus, when a child acts out in a church meeting, escapes from the pew, and runs up on to the stand, observers don’t attribute the behavior to the disposition of the child only, but also to the disposition of the parents. Parents don’t fade into the background as part of the situation, but are front and center in the crosshairs of the judgment being passed on the behavior of the child by the observers all around. Knowing this, the parents feel embarrassed and judged by others for the misbehaviors of their children.
But what of the situation? What is invisible to the observers of the child’s behavior who will almost always blame the parents? Observers surely cannot see all the work parents put into teaching their children how to behave in church. They cannot see the home evening lessons, the scolding, the reinforcement of good behaviors, and the time-outs for bad behaviors. They cannot see the effects of sugary cereals on the chemistry of the child. They are unaware of the sibling that is quietly encouraging misbehaviors on the part of the child. They can’t see how mom and dad were up all night with the child’s baby sister and are now exhausted. Even further, they can’t see back into the spirit world where this child lived in spirit form and developed traits and qualities there. They don’t know the brain chemistry of the child which may be influenced by genetic and environmental factors and interactions. There are hundreds, if not thousands of situational factors that observers can’t see. All they see is the child and the parents and true to the FAE they are going to blame them, not the situation, for the behavior.
Only Christ can see the situation fully and clearly. Only the Savior who has descended below all things so that he can comprehend all things is free from the fundamental attribution error. He knows how children and their parents are constrained by a host of situational factors and personal factors that are invisible to the human eye. This is why we are commanded not to judge others, for our judgments will always be imperfect, whether we commit the FAE or any of another number of judgment errors. The Lord warns that if we do judge we will be judged with that same judgment with which we have judged. Thus, if we commit the FAE and blame parents and their children for the behaviors we observe, then we ought to fully expect that the Savior will apply the FAE in his judgment of us—and none of us would want that! We want the Lord to have mercy upon us and to take into account all the situational and personal limitations that constrain our agency.
What can we do to overcome the FAE? Social psychologists tell us that we are unlikely to stop this fundamental tendency in us, but that there are some things we can do to weaken its power. First, we will make the error, but we don’t have to let the error stick. We can remind ourselves that even though we are focused on the person there are also a number of important situational factors at play that we simply cannot see, but are needed to give a full account of the behaviors we observe. In other words, we ought to be humble and not let our impressions and judgments become the reality through which we evaluate the person. We can also try and make the background situational factors less invisible by paying closer attention to the context and giving people the benefit of the doubt. These things can help but only one thing can truly defeat this fundamental thinking error. We must seek the gift of righteous judgment, which comes only in those moments when we see with the eyes of the Savior. We need the spirit to guide our views of others and attributions about their behavior. If we can see through His eyes we will judge, but we will do so with humility, charity, and compassion.
The next time you see a young child misbehave in sacrament meeting or a teenage kid make a bad choice and you think, “What is wrong with that kid?” and “What does that kid’s behavior say about the home he or she is raised in?”, take a moment to offer a silent prayer and ask the Lord’s forgiveness for the fundament attribution error you have just committed. Pray for the spirit to soften your heart and to give you new eyes with which to see this child of God, even the eyes of Christ. And then, look again. You might just see, as the Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton saw, “the secret beauty of their hearts,the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”