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  • Writer's pictureAmos Gdalyahu

Feeling, Reacting and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Updated: May 2, 2023

Her eyes shot flames when she said in anger (for the fifth time), "You just don't care about me!" "That's not true," I said, "it's..." but she interrupted me, "What's not true? This is how I feel right now, and you can't argue with how I feel! They teach us that in all the workshops!" I felt like she was lashing out at me (and I also thought she didn't understand all the workshops she had been to), and at the same time, I said, "I understand that's how you feel, I..." "You were half an hour late and made me wait as if I'm just some nobody! What do you want me to feel? Obviously, I don't matter to you, and you don't care about me at all, so I'm angry, and it's a mistake because I shouldn't be angry with you. I should understand that you just... don't care about me!!". "I really was late and apologized for it. We agree on these facts but between the facts and your anger, there's something else." "What?" I continued: "I was late, and you interpret it as if I don't care about you, but there could be other interpretations. If we were at the beginning of our relationship, and I was late, maybe then you would think there are traffic jams or that I'm not organized, but you wouldn't think I don't care about you, right?" "Right... but..." "So, if you interpret the same situation differently now, I could think that you always assume the worst of me or that you don't want to be with me anymore and are just looking for an excuse, or I could think that maybe you feel like I'm not chasing after you anymore..." She cut me off and said in a broken voice, "You really are not chasing after me anymore!" I hugged her, and some time passed. "You're saying that I don't care about you, but that's an interpretation - and I know it seems to you like the most truthful one right now - but that's just an interpretation of what happened, and it's an interpretation that I don't agree with. The point is that this interpretation lies between the facts - what happened - and the feelings. We jump to conclusions in split seconds and believe them completely, without realizing that there was an interpretation there. It seems to us as if there was an event, and then immediately afterwards there was the feeling, and then of course there was a reaction because there was a feeling".

This is a story that I came up with to demonstrate the model: event-interpretation-feeling-reaction. The understanding that there is an interpretation between the event and the feelings gives me the responsibility. I no longer rely on the first interpretation that my brain gives me. Instead of being dragged along, I make an effort and look for other interpretations.

There's a problem though: it involves mental effort, and that's something humans really don't like to do. Psychologically, we have two systems: one that is fast and intuitive, and works effortlessly, and the other is slow, effortful, and rational. Which of them you think we prefer to use? Of course, we tend to use the first, effort-free one. The recognition of this highly imperfect human nature awarded a Nobel Prize to Daniel Kahneman. We want to be in control of our lives, but at the moment of truth, we surrender to the first interpretation that comes up, and many times it's not an interpretation that serves us well. just because it's effortless. Back to the model: event-interpretation-feeling-reaction So there's an event (facts) and then there's interpretation. Interpretation can be intuitive or under rational control. Feeling is a result of interpretation, and voluntary reaction is a result of feeling.

It could be that someone tells me to present a document proving receiving the immunization shot (one interpretation: dictatorship, second interpretation: the government has no choice, third interpretation: it's a situation that no one understands and they're trying to guess), the event could be that friends had an event and didn't invite me (one interpretation: they don't like me, second interpretation: everyone was sure I was already invited because I'm so popular, third interpretation: it was an unintentional failure).

This model is a tool. It can be used for useful things and can be used to destroy. I call the latter abuse of the model. The idea of the model is to see reality. Not to beautify reality and not to uglify it. It's not for make you accepting being bullied by interrupting the bully positively. That is, the model is not intended to make me interpret every event positively and say that everything is great and it's just my interpretation. For example: It's possible that the reason I was late to the meeting was that I really didn't care about being on time - instead of leaving at time, I chose to watch an episode of a Netflix series. I didn't call to say I was running late because I thought it wouldn't be a big deal if she waited for me for half an hour, and I didn't even apologize for it. It's possible that this is just how I am. In a case like this, if she chooses to explicitly say something like "there was traffic and I'm sometimes late too," she's not seeing reality, she's becoming a caricature and that's not the goal.

Furthermore, maybe she's not familiar with the model and I'll explain it to her so she'll interpret me in a way that's good for me. All of these are abuses of the model. For everything good, you can do an abuse, so it's not simple.

It's important to have boundaries, to see reality not prettier or uglier than it is. So how do we know when our interpretation fits reality and when it distorts or disfigures it? As mentioned, it's not easy, and this is where the "fundamental attribution error" concept from psychology can sometimes help. Here it is. The fundamental attribution error is a term used in psychology to describe the most common mistake people make: when someone else does something, we attribute their behavior to their character, while when we do something, we attribute it to the circumstances. Even if we did exactly the same thing. In such cases, the fundamental attribution error causes us to interpret reality in a too positive or too negative way. Let me explain:

For example, if I don't let another driver merge into my lane, I believe it's because I'm in a hurry and can't let everyone merge ahead of me. In other words, it says nothing about me.

When it comes to my own behavior, I interpret it as a result of circumstances.

However, if someone else didn't let me merge into their lane, I would think it's because they're rude, aggressive, and unpleasant. In other words, I would interpret their behavior as arising from their character rather than circumstances.

If I were standing on the sidelines, I would attribute both drivers' motivations to their personalities: one is pushy and thinks everything belongs to them, while the other is rude, angry, and unpleasant.

If I were late to meet a friend, from my perspective, it's because there was traffic, and I was focused on work, and I didn't realize how much time had passed, and I had to finish something, and also because I parked very far. (In other words, everything was circumstances, and not things that are related to my charming personality). But if my friend were late to meet me, oh then it's totally different! I would interpret it with things related to their personality: they are disorganized, unreliable, they don't care about me, etc.

This applies to positive things too: if my boss gives me a promotion, I think it's because he is nice and thinks I'm great at my job (internal reason). When I give a bonus to my employee it's because I was in a good mood, I want him to continue to make an effort and he deserves it (not because I'm generous or kind-hearted).

Familiarity with the basic attribution error can help in interpreting realistically the behaviors of others and also in better understanding oneself. Beyond the basic attribution error, everyone has their own patterns, tendencies to see things in a certain way, and the interpretation always seems to be the most accurate, but it's just an interpretation. This is not a way to avoid unpleasant feelings! Feelings like anger, fear, and disgust are important to us. Sometimes reality is annoying, frustrating, irritating, or scary. However, sometimes we become slaves to a pattern of interpretation that doesn't serve us and doesn't fit reality. The idea is to examine reality for additional explanations so that we are not stuck in a certain type of interpretation. This way, the feeling that will arise will be more tailored to reality and therefore more supportive of us. Whether it's a pleasant or unpleasant feeling (I object to the division into good and bad feelings: all feelings are good! You can't experience only half of the spectrum). So we chose the interpretation and the feeling follows. After the feeling rise, it leads to a behavioral response that is more difficult to block or change. Maybe you think now that what I'm writing here is generally correct, but not for your specific case. It's the same mistake again. Those illusions that my mind knows so well to generate for keeping me drifting along with it.

In Buddhism, these mistakes are called delusions, and they teach that they are the source of human suffering because they prevent us from seeing the true nature of the world. Decades of practice in the best case, and many life cycles in the less fortunate case but much more common (according to Buddhist belief) are necessary to completely overcome them.

So yes, it's kind of hard.. :) Our nature is to jump to conclusions and to not see reality accurately. But our nature is also many other things that we - as human beings - no longer do because we wanted to develop and leave the caves. It takes effort and perseverance, but it returns the power to us.

I'm attaching a link to an excellent lecture by Dr. Lisa Bart on exactly these things. Dr. Lisa Bart is an important researcher in the field of emotion. The subject of this post was not understanding emotion and feeling which I'll discuss in a future post. stay tuned! (Meanwhile I highly recommend reading an excellent recent book by Prof. David Anderson from Caltech: "The Nature of the Beast: How Emotions Guide Us"

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