Friday, January 20, 2012

Fundamental Attribution Error

Ever notice that we have a tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to their disposition or character, but to link our own behavior to our environment or circumstances?

I can’t help it – it’s my upbringing, my situation, my biology, my____.

Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error.

For example, if we see a stranger trip, they must be clumsy or absentminded. But if we trip, well there must be something on the floor, or stuck to our shoe. We automatically look back at the ground with a wrinkled brow.

(Photo: sandman_kk / CC)

Even if there is nothing there, we'll sometimes pretend there was!

When we ignore the speed limit, it’s because we seriously need to get somewhere quick – like to work on time or we’ll be in trouble. We’re not really “speeders,” it’s just that our circumstances necessitate it today (and every time we’re running late).

But when another car speeds past us, weaving through traffic, it’s because they are irresponsible - and we hope they get pulled over.

I'm not really a speeder, I'm not really a liar, I'm not really lazy, I'm not really a cheater, it's just that ...
It’s always totally “their bad” but it’s never quite  fully “our bad.” It doesn’t take much pondering to figure out why this is – we want to excuse our behavior. To not have to examine it, change it or feel bad about it.

Yet we do feel bad about it.  Every so often – maybe when a romantic partner leaves us, or at New Year’s, or when convicted by God’s Spirit – we take an honest look at ourselves, and we want to change.

Once we decide to change, we attack our problematic behavior with all the will power we can summons. Because, we assume, that is what it takes to change.

I wonder if this isn't another kind of fundamental attribution error. 

Biblically speaking, is it our willpower that changes us? Christ said He can do nothing apart from the Father. And, Christ said, we can do nothing apart from Him. ( see John 15:5)

So, where does our strength come from? Regret-fulled willpower, or Spirit-fueled transformation?  Which one do you tend to rely on?


  1. Amen, Rachel! I see people doing that all the time! Judging others, pointing out their faults, while completely ignoring the fingers pointing back at them. Shame on them! They need to stop and take those planks out of their eyes before trying to tweeze out my splinters! Here, maybe I should help them...

    And, in case you didn't catch that, I was busy pointing a few fingers at myself with that diatribe. ;-)

    Thank you for the reminder that I cannot fix myself. I can only confess, ask for His forgiveness, and beg for His help to overcome these willful choices!

    You always get me thinking, Rachel! I really appreciate that. :-)

    Have a lovely day!


  2. Spirit-filled transformation!! Woo Hoo! It is His strength and power...not ours. We just have to surrender our hearts. Really, it's a great and freeing deal for us!! :) (though our stubborn hearts can find it hard to surrender!)


  3. I think mine comes from a little bit of both but the regret-fuelled willpower doesn't last. Only the Spirit-filled transformation has staying power.


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