You know how when somebody else is late, they’re a horrible person, but when you’re late, there’s always a good reason for it? The psychological mechanism behind that attitude is at the roots of many disagreements about gender. Fortunately, there are ways you can avoid it.
Late, but useful
I always find it endearing when psychologists make a great discovery and describe a completely novel psychological mechanism which we, philosophers, have been talking about for centuries.
The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) has been described by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris in 1967. Its simple: when we explain why other people do what they do — especially when we don’t like it — we tend to attribute their actions to personality traits and downplay the role of external circumstances. But when we explain our own actions, it’s the other way around.
A classic example: if you are late for a meeting with me, it’s because you are an unreliable person who doesn’t respect my time. It’s all about your character. But if I’m late for a meeting with you, it’s because I’ve been stuck in traffic, was held up somewhere, had to finish that thing. It’s all about external circumstances.
Naturally, when it’s about something good, the roles often reverse. If we get the prize, it’s because we’re awesome. If they get it, it’s because they got lucky and probably paid off the judge.
In 1967, Jones and Harris were only some 25 centuries late to catch up with Confucius who urged people to understand others’ motivations, intentions, and the context of their actions. And 23 centuries late for Aristotle who encouraged considering people’s perspectives and the context when interpreting their intentions and attributing virtue.
You’ll find the same themes appearing in the thought of Mencius, John Locke, Nagarjuna, Al-Farabi, in Jainism, Sufism, Existentialism, Ubuntu Philosophy… And don’t forget the guy who said: Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?, and Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.
Anyway, you get the point. Humans have long been known to be much harsher when judging others than when judging themselves. The FAE captures one of the ways in which this happens: we tend to see anything we do wrong as caused and excused by the circumstances, but all that other people do wrong as caused by their sick, evil nature.
Gendering the Error
First, a quick note. None of what I write is meant to invalidate the fact that men and women do utterly horrible things to each other. I realise that having some understanding for the context of abuse is a lot to ask of its victims. I also know that the majority of violence is committed by men and I certainly do not want to excuse any of that with circumstances.
But let’s leave the really horrible stuff aside and focus on all the everyday things we annoy each other with. It’s not hard to see how the FAE plays out in all those little battles of the pointless gender war we continue to fight.
How we describe each other
Search for any clickbait article on Ten Things Wo/Men Do Wrong in Dating, written by the member of the opposite gender, and you’ll find that nine of those are just things people do. Ignoring messages. Being clingy. Making assumptions. Being crap in bed. Taking no responsibility. Only talking about themselves. Disappearing after the first date.
Most such articles should be retitled: Ten Things Which Are Fine When I Do Them But An Absolute Travesty When They Do.
Search for anything on ghosting and you’ll find that if they do it, it’s because they are complete douchebags who have no ounce of respect and consideration left in them. But when we do it, you need to take into account the context: the date was hopeless, they bored us to death, we can’t risk getting stuck in pointless discussions, and so on.
How we see each other
When you ask women why they don’t want to date men, it’s because all those entitled assholes only want sex, have no emotional intelligence, are exploitative, sexist, undereducated, insensitive, have nothing to offer at all, and besides, #MenAreTrash.
Men who reflect on those things might point out that they grew up in a culture which ingrained sexist attitudes in them through stories, religions and countless social interactions, were taught to supress emotions and only receive validation through sex, continue to receive powerful incentives to maintain a strong façade, hide vulnerabilities, and conform to traditional gender norms, and that gaining social status still requires performing masculinity.
Meanwhile, when you ask men why they don’t want to date women, they’ll tell you it’s because those entitled man-bashing bitches are all frigid gold diggers with inflated egos and expectations, have no care and empathy left in them, and bring nothing to the table.
Women who reflect on those might point out that they are tired and angry with the continuing discrimination they experience, have been socially conditioned to find sex difficult and often scary, to see men as potential danger, to carefully asses if a date is worth the risk, and have only recently reclaimed their right to feel equally valued as humans and to state their boundaries and expectations.
How we talk to each other
Finally, if people say something that annoys us in a discussion, it’s because they are hateful, ignorant, entitled, set on upholding the patriarchy or forcing men to become women, and their mother didn’t love them (I actually got this one).
But when we say something that others find offensive, it’s because we’ve been pushed too hard, because this thing triggered us, because of years of sexism, loneliness, objectification and rejection, and there’s probably some trauma and an Evil Ex story on top.
Oh, and did I mention that when we consider ourselves as groups, the underlying assumption is usually that they are mostly horrible with maybe some good apples in the mix, but we are mostly wonderful with maybe some bad apples? It’s funny, because it works whichever side you’re on.
Down the spiral of hate
When people start heated discussions, this is how it usually goes:
- Person A is annoyed with something B said and attributes this to a fundamental character flaw of B.
- B is offended, because they feel that even if they’ve done something wrong, it’s actually explained by the circumstances.
- B attributes A’s accusation to a fundamental character flaw of A.
- A is offended, because they feel that even if they were a bit harsh in their criticism, it’s explained by the circumstances.
- Rinse and repeat.
I bet that you have seen hundreds such discussions. People get stuck in them and they never end well. All they produce is more resentment, blame and hopelessness. Nobody is ever convinced. Everybody leaves thinking they’ve been harmed and the other side is vile, stupid and evil.
But it gets worse: the error plays out not only on the level of a single discussion, but between discussions, too. As people get into each next spat, they see what happened last time as a circumstance which excuses them for, once again, committing the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Or, in other words: I might be assuming you’re an asshole before I even heard what you have to say, but it’s because I had hundreds such discussions and in each one a person like you was a complete asshole. Hi.
Argument defusal toolkit
We all get into stupid discussions where we talk past each other. If we took all the energy we spend on fighting over misunderstandings and used it towards actually solving our problems, well, we’d be that much closer to solving our problems, right?
You now have a new tool in your argument defusal toolkit. When you see a heated disagreement, check if the people involved don’t attribute all that annoys them in the other person to their fundamental character flaws without giving enough consideration to context and circumstances.
If yes, try to make them aware of what they are doing. Do what Confucius, Aristotle and Jesus all recommended: draw people’s attention to the context and circumstances which motivated the other person to say what they said. Suggest that if they themselves have done the very same thing (and they probably have!), they’d probably not see it as a proof of their own fundamental character flaw.
Today, much of this advice has been shared under the banner of Non-Violent Communication. It’s all about moving away from statements which ascribe permanent character traits, e.g. you are an asshole, and towards focusing on specific actions and circumstances, e.g. I feel hurt by something you’ve done.
These two messages invite completely different responses. Nobody thinks of themselves as a bad person, so accusing someone of being fundamentally bad leaves them no option but to defend.
But telling someone they’ve done a bad thing leaves open the possibility that they are fundamentally a good person who just made a mistake, likely guided by the circumstances. This person won’t be so offended and won’t need to defend at all cost. They can say: Huh, I guess. But I’m generally good, so I’ll try better next time.
And sure, many times they won’t. Many times they’ll be too stubborn to admit doing anything wrong. But sometimes they will. I say even a small improvement is better than no improvement at all.
Now, here comes the hard part. It’s easy to spot cases of FAE when other people do it. It’s much harder to spot them when we do it.
Thus, we’re back to our old friend Socrates, who said that you should try your best to Know Thyself. We all should reflect on what we are doing, ask ourselves the same questions and hold ourselves to the same standards that we’re holding others to.
You don’t need to feel horrible for every situation in which you fell for the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a basic psychological bias we all have and it is hard to avoid.
But we should all do our best to become better humans, and that includes being a bit more sensitive to the context in which people say and do things.
This way, maybe we can finally stop arguing and demonising each other, and start building a better world together.