How ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ Causes Us To Unfairly Label People

How ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ Causes Us To Unfairly Label People


In our human mind, there’s a particular deficiency called ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’ This story tells the interesting effect it can have on our behavior.

As I’m writing this, I’m in Los Gatos, California, speaking at a leadership summit, called Hive Global Leaders Summit.

And my friend, Tom Chi, just got off the stage.

Tom was a former founder of Google X and is one of the most brilliant men I know.

An ardent environmentalist, and a guy who teaches how we can “debug” our minds to identify areas in our thinking that are sub-optimal and learn better to operate as human beings.

One of the ways Tom just pointed out is in the way we use nouns to make the world easier to understand.

Tom held up a fork.

And he asked the audience, “What is this?”

Of course, everyone yelled out, “Fork!”

“Great, we call this a ‘fork’ ” Tom replied. “The word fork is a noun. It allows us to instantly recognize what this thing is. It allows us to instantly communicate this object to someone else. But, if we really go deeper and analyze the history of forks, you’ll see that forks are so much more.

They’re made of stainless steel.

Stainless steel is roughly 88% iron, 12% carbon.

That 88% of iron was created in exploding supernovas that happened BILLIONS of years ago.

Vishen Lakhiani with Tom Ch, Inventor and Google X Co-Founder
Me and Tom Ch, Inventor and Google X Co-Founder

The fork was an idea that came from the Ottoman empire, and it slowly made its way to Europe when the Ottoman Empire invaded the Balkans in 1453.

The idea then spread to a nation known as France, where it gained the fork-shape we now know.

So, if you look at the concept of the fork, you can see that forks are so much more than just what we make them to be.

They have a history. They have a material composition. They have a story of their own.

But we simply label them… ‘A fork.’ ”

Then Tom shared some words that really made me think.

He continued…

Isn’t it true, that human beings are so much more complex than forks? Yet, we so easily apply labels to human beings.

Labels such as ‘Muslim’, ‘black’, ‘lawyer’, ‘woman’, ‘teenager’, ‘Christian’, ‘Jew’, ‘German’, ‘Canadian’, ‘leftist’, ‘Republican’…

So, how are we sabotaging the way we understand people or how we interpret people by putting these labels on them?

This got me thinking.

And It reminded me of a time when I accidentally labeled someone.

It was around 18 years ago at a time I called San Francisco home.

I was walking down the street, and I saw a lady in front of me eating an Oreo. As she ate her cookie, she dropped the wrapper and continued to walk on.

Now, I loved my home city of San Francisco. And I loved it clean.

So, I sped up, picked up the wrapper, walked in front of her, dropped it into the trash can, and then glared at her.

It was one of those self-righteous, “holier-than-thou” glares.

A glare that communicated exactly what I thought about her without having to say a word.

“Litterbug.” “Irresponsible.” “Sloppy.”

The woman looked back at me and all of a sudden, she burst into tears.

Okay… That wasn’t quite the response I was expecting.

“Wha-What’s going on? Why are you crying?”

She replied, “Why did you have to be such an asshole?”

Oh wow… So this is where this conversation is heading? I couldn’t believe she replied that way.

“Me? Asshole? You’re the one who was littering! I was just picking up YOUR trash!”

Look… I just broke up this morning. I’m miserable. I’m sad. I’m heartbroken. All I want to do is eat this damn cookie and make myself feel good for a little while. I dropped the wrapper on accident and I didn’t even realize I did it. I would never litter. My mind was just somewhere else. I’m just having an awful, awful day. Why did you have to be such a jerk and make me feel even worse?

I stopped glaring.

I made a massive mistake.

I, in my overzealous, self-righteous mode, unfairly judged her without giving her a fair chance.

And in an instant, I labeled her.

“Litterbug.” “Irresponsible.” “Sloppy.”

You see, in our human mind, there’s a particular deficiency called ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’

Psychologists have actually studied this.

What this error simply means is that when we see someone else do something we perceive as “wrong,” we blame it on their character.

But when we do it, it’s simply circumstance.

Think about it this way…

When was the last time you got cut off on the road? Did you instantly judge that person as being inconsiderate? Did you start questioning how on earth someone like that could ever get their driving license? Did you say something even worse?

I admit I’ve been guilty of this.

But how about when YOU accidentally cut someone off? What was going through your head?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so late my boss is going to kill me. I’m sorry I just did that.”

Can you see how TWO exactly same scenarios, seen from TWO different perspectives can garner TWO widely different reactions?

When someone else does it, it’s poor character.

When you do it, it’s an unfortunate circumstance.

Fundamental Attribution Error grips our minds and causes us to judge other people unfairly.

And our concept of nouns causes us to RADICALLY simplify people.

Muslims, for example, are way more complex than just the label they are given.

And when news reports swirl about a “Muslim ban”, it taps into this simplification model in our head to get us to cast judgment against a wide swathe of people.

Or when we talk about people who disagree with our side of the political spectrum and label them “right-wingers” or “left-winger” we are casting unfair judgment on them.

We end up taking a broad spectrum of fears, ideas, values, family histories, and opinions and minimizing them into one, single, convenient label.

Unless we take more care, we will inevitably do this to people all the time. And it can have some serious repercussions…

It limits our ability for empathy.

To understand.

And ultimately, to create a more peaceful and healed world.

So be conscious of the next time you apply a noun to judge someone.

And the next time you think of someone based on their religion, their country, their political leanings, or the color of their skin…

Remember, human beings are far more complex than forks.

And we’re only doing ourselves a disservice when we put someone — anyone — into a simple, convenient box.

If you like this idea and would like to have a discussion about it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When was the last time you were unfairly labeled?

Or even, if you’re willing to be a little vulnerable, when did you unfairly label someone else? Share it in the comments below.

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