I am constantly forgetting that everyone has a unique experience of consciousness. What exactly that is may be the same, but each individual feels as alive and aware as I do. It’s so easy to forget because I’m the only perspective of my conscious experience. It’s hard to believe sometimes but the other people I interact with are not part of the movie I’m watching. They have the same potential for pretty much everything that I do – joy, sadness, learning, injury, cognitive distortions, hunger, dreaming, etc…
Each one of them is as real as I am and they feel too.
When I’m not forgetting that they are real, I am forgetting that they are very similar to me. One of my university professors claimed that all human beings are almost genetically identical to each other, that any diversity we see is the result of differences in a very small percentage of the genetic code, he said less than one percent. That means there’s a very good chance that many people will respond to certain stimuli the same way I do, that we’ll think in similar terms and that we’ll have similar abilities. Why then is it that when someone bumps into me with their shopping card I concluded that they are probably stupid but when I bump into them it’s because I wasn’t able to navigate through the tight aisles? Because of the fundamental attribution error.
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for us to explain behavior in terms of internal disposition, such as personality traits, abilities, motives, etc. as opposed to external environmental factors that may have impacted the individual. We don’t judge ourselves like this because we have an understanding of our external environment which clearly explains our behavior. But this understanding doesn’t help us explain someone else behaviour and since we don’t have their understanding we manufacture one that usually has them being a sub par human being.
It works both ways though. Sometimes people will be so taken by another that they are unable to see their internal traits in a negative light and blame the environment for all negative outcomes. The experience of first love can be like this as it is all consuming and often at odds with reality. Another example is the person you know who is just really unlucky and has all the bad things happen to them. At some point it becomes evident that they are making some poor decisions that are leading to very predictable outcomes that they attribute to bad luck. In this case, the fundamental attribution error would not be an error.
Why would it be our tendency to make guesses about others character based on their behaviour instead of the environment, as we do with ourselves? Obviously this tendency kept our ancestors alive through out history. I think it has something to do with magical thinking and our desire to gain an advantage over others. Attributing other’s behavior to their underlying character allows us to determine the motives of others that will help us make predictions about them, these predictions with help us save energy by eliminating the need to think.
I make this claim because it works with both negative and positive behaviours – we will assume someone who does nice things is a good person regardless of any environmental influence. For example, how many times have you heard someone play down their heroic actions by saying “I did what anyone would do in that situation”? Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but the sheer number of people who act like selflessly in crisis situations does tend to lend support to their notion that people act with kindness and caring when they are faced with difficult environmental conditions.
It would seem that in our quest to stay alive, we conserve energy in whatever ways we can. One of these ways is to compartmentalize our understanding of people by eliminating the potential role the environment plays in their behaviour. And this makes sense because the environment is ever changing, creating an understanding of others that is static makes interacting with the world that much easier. But, it doesn’t change the fact that others are exactly as we are, alive, aware and full of humanity.