"How desperately difficult it is to be honest with oneself. It is much easier to be honest with other people." - Edward Frederic Benson
Why do you you lose your cool when you lose your keys? Why do you gossip shamelessly each time you go out for drinks? If you do either of these less-than-flattering behaviors, chances are you blame circumstance. As in, losing keys was bad that day because of the mandatory morning meeting. And those drinky gossipy times? Drinking with the gals always brings out your snark.
The odd thing, however, is that we do not attribute circumstance to other people’s less-than-flattering behavior. In other words, Carol gossips while she drinks because she’s got a busybody personality, not because drinks make her snarky.
This phenomenon -- to believe external factors define our behavior, while internal ones define others -- is driven by Cognitive Bias and, specifically, two biases are at play here: Fundamental Attribution Error and Self Serving Bias. These two biases are two sides of a little untrue, hypocritical coin; when bad behavior is afoot in another, they have personality flaws, but when it’s you acting errant, you’re a victim of circumstance.
Why does this matter?
Because, if you’re interested in making good decisions, achieving goals, or bettering yourself or the world, these biases are holding you back.
As an example, people with Self Serving Bias, make excuses for their behavior and blame factors beyond their control for their lives. This makes them a victim of circumstance and that’s a major roadblock to growth and self improvement. Another example, leaders who engage in Fundamental Attribution Error, make bad calls about their employee’s skills and potential and likely stereotype, which is simply bad leadership.
Psychologists believe we do this because blaming external factors for failures and disappointments helps us protect our self esteem. Unfortunately, as this article at PsychCentral points out, Self Serving Bias, “can rob people of opportunities to learn and improve. If we address our weaknesses and listen to critique we can improve. If we avoid them and blame them on factors like the teacher, the car we took a driving test with etc, then we remain stagnant.”
Cognitive bias has more sinister effects on society as well. This Guardian Article, The Mistake We All Make, discusses how murderers commonly use Self Serving Bias and False Attribution to blame victims, excuse their own behavior and avoid responsibility. “They attributed their homicides to the situation they had been in. [As in] ‘So I tell the guy behind the counter to give me everything in the till and instead he reaches under the counter. Of course I had to plug him. I felt bad about it.’”
How do we counter our own cognitive bias?
You’re already taking the first step. Simply being aware of cognitive bias will help you avoid attributing circumstance to your negative behavior and avoiding personal responsibility. Begin fighting this bias by checking knee-jerk reactions, embracing failures and confronting your own negative behavior. See these things as learning experiences instead of assaults to self esteem. This will help you take responsibility, learn from errors and grow.
Also, consider other people’s circumstances when they act in unflattering ways. Pay more attention to context before you judge others. Identify situational factors influencing your behavior and their behavior. Find out what’s really behind people’s actions, so you can give credit where it’s due and practice generosity and tolerance.