The Attribution Error and Me

Guilty! Most, if not all of us, are guilty of the attribution error. It’s when we attribute “bad” motivations to another person while believing our own motives are good. Yet when we do bad things we justify our actions by insisting they were provoked by other people or various circumstances. “I did this out of goodness, not evil,” claimed Anders Breivik after murdering 77 people in Norway in 2011. Usually our distortions will not be so extreme, but the attribution error permeates our perceptions and often has a destructive impact on interpersonal relationships.

While in marital therapy, for example, Petra complained that Steven is hostile and critical, “Why does he go postal when I buy a few daffodils?” To Steven, Petra spent far too much money on non-essentials. Petra was convinced that Steve is a cheapskate, while he was sure that she is a spendthrift who buys things just to annoy him. Fresh flowers mean a lot to Petra and she buys them regularly; to Steven, flowers are a stupid waste of money. He knows that he is sarcastic and critical but, of course, he blames Petra’s spending for provoking him because he sees his intent to save money as beneficial for the family. When Steven is sarcastic to Petra, she doesn’t hear the words or the logic, she hears the music of hostility. This couple’s inability to evaluate the consequences of their own words and actions was obviously destructive to their marriage.

We are all capable of doing or saying something wrong for the “right” reasons. Historically, the greatest evils were committed in the perceived name of goodness. The Catholic Church’s Inquisition, Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags and suicide bombers all provide examples of how anyone can justify his actions, irrespective of how extreme they may be. All, even Breivik, have been motivated “out of goodness.” We tend to be blind to our own motives yet hypersensitive to those of the people in our close orbits.

Therefore, we must look more analytically at both ourselves and others. Of course, there is a limit—when abuse occurs, we should not passively accept it. Still, in most cases we can work to find ways to defuse a bad situation by allowing for the inevitable imperfections of the human condition and putting ourselves in the other persons’ shoes. The fact that Steven and Petra came to marital therapy shows that they were willing to have a dialogue and work together. Like them, in marital therapy most spouses come in with a list of grievances about the other. I often ask both to itemize ten things they like about their partner. Very often, they are stunned by my request. They have been so busy spinning webs about each other’s faults they have become blinded to their strengths. When we attribute negative motives to people, we interpret even their neutral actions to those negative motives.

I’m afraid I am also guilty. I have found myself amazed that some people have friends although I find them to have no saving graces. They, of course, say the same about me. To everyone in therapy, and to myself, I ask the question, “What can you do to make things better?” Finding faults in others may be satisfying, but it is destructive. By looking for the positive, it can be found. We really must see the other side.