Look What You Made Me Do

September 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we attribute too much cause to the individual while ignoring the power of the situation. But there is a second attribution error – perhaps not as fundamental, but still important.

The central idea in attribution theory is this: when people* explain why another person did something, they attribute the behavior to causes within the person – their personality or other traits. The person behaved bravely because he is brave or dishonestly because he is sneaky, or affably because she is outgoing, and so on.  But when people explain their own behavior, they cite external factors – specific or vague aspects of the situation. They rarely say or think: I did it because I’m brave, outgoing, sneaky, etc. Instead they think they did what most people in the same situation would do. It’s all about the situation, not about me. When we make the fundamental attribution error, we leap too quickly from the behavior we observe to conclusions about the person’s character.

The second type of attribution error can occur when we think about our own behavior and attribute too much power to external forces while ignoring or denying our own ability to exercise free will. For example, my syllabus says explicitly that I base grades on the total points from tests and papers. Attendance matters only for point totals at the borderline between letter grades. There is no attendance requirement. But when I ask a student, “Why did you come to class?” the answer is often, “I had to.” Given a few seconds to reflect, the student might come up with an answer more consistent with the facts. Still, that first and more-or-less automatic answer reveals the basic assumption we make about why we’ve done something: I had to.

Two worst-date stories I heard recently on a podcast (“Unorthodox”) reminded me of this second attribution error. I’ve added edited transcripts, but you should really listen to the audio clips to get a better sense of the story and the reactions of the podcast interviewers.

It was really terrible . . .  And after it was done, I definitely did not want to go out again. And I was getting out of the car, and I said something like, “Hey, thanks. Have a great night,” sort of mumbled that, and he thought I’d said something like, “I had a great night.” So he goes, “Me too. Would you like to go out for breakfast tomorrow?” And I died inside, and somehow that was taken for a yes. So I had to go out with him again.

The guy got the wrong impression, but rather than correct him – not in the immediate situation and not afterwards by sending a text – she chose to endure a second date the next morning. (Of course, she didn’t see it as a choice. In her view, she had to.)

Here’s worst-date #2.

I went out with a guy, and he took me to a fancy restaurant. And he was dressed sort of like a hillbilly. And he wouldn’t speak, and there was a lot of awkward silences. And I asked him, “Why are there so many awkward silences?” And he goes like, “I feel comfortable with silence. I think we should feel comfortable with silence.” And then he proceeded not to talk for the rest of the date as a test to our relationship.

And then he took me to the Marriott Marquis where there’s this rotating lounge on the top floor. But what he failed to mention was that he’s extremely phobic of heights. So when we went into the glass elevator, he started having a panic attack. And when we got out on the 42nd floor, I was coaching him, telling him to breathe.  He’s asking me where we’re going in our relationship. . . .

But the kicker is that we had to walk down forty-two flights of stairs.

I wonder if gender makes a difference in these dating fiascos where the man and woman have very different perceptions of what the relationship is – that is, what the roles are and therefore who is supposed to do what. Women may think, “I don’t like the role you make me play,” but play it they do. Would a man behave differently? Would he say, “Look, I’ve gotten you through your anxiety attack, and I’m really sorry you suffered like that. But this is not going to be a relationship, and I’m certainly not going to walk down forty-two frickin’ flights of stairs. If you can join me in the elevator, we can leave together. If not, I’ll just say good-bye now.”

I don’t know of any systematic evidence on gender as it relates to dealing with bad dates. I guess I’ll have to pay more attention to Todd and Jayde’s “Blown Off” segment.

* Cultures may vary on this tendency. Most of the evidence comes from the US and perhaps other Western countries, and there is some evidence that Asians may be more likely to consider situational factors when thinking about the causes of other people’s behavior.

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