Imagine you drop by your neighbor’s house for a morning cup of coffee. She tells you that her adult son just lost his job because he was late to work for the third time. What thoughts are you likely to have?
Maybe you think badly of your friend, because she must have spoiled him when he was younger. Maybe you think badly of him, like how irresponsible he is or that he is too selfish to consider how hard it is for his mother to take care of him.
Maybe a friend has recently done something to hurt your feelings, such as cancelling lunch plans for the third time. You may view her actions as meaning she wanted to hurt you because she’s jealous of your new job or resents your new relationship.
Fundamental Attribution Error
If you did have thoughts like those described above, then you are not alone. Most people interpret others’ behavior in a specific situation as reflecting basic personality characteristics. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error. Even when people know about this tendency to interpret someone’s actions as personality characteristics, they still do it.
It’s very difficult to stop. So the person who doesn’t help the elderly man with his groceries is self-centered and the woman who lifts her head when she passes is a snob. People believe that they can know the intentions of others through what they do maybe because most people believe personality controls behavior rather than situations.
On the other side, having your behavior interpreted by others can be hurtful and aggravating when you are on the receiving end. For example, let’s say you leave dishes in the sink because you don’t want to wake others by washing them. You see yourself as being thoughtful, but the people you live with say you did it because you are lazy. You would feel misunderstood to say the least and it is likely that relationships would be damaged.
At the same time, for the most part people don’t see their own behavior as being explained by personality characteristics. They are likely to see their own behavior as being explained by circumstances, such as they were repeatedly late to work because they’ve been having difficulty sleeping or they didn’t stop to help the elderly man because they were late to a critical appointment.
How Many of the Emotionally Sensitive Attribute Intention and Causality
The emotionally sensitive tend to respond differently. They often blame flaws in themselves for their behavior and judge themselves harshly for outcomes that they may have no control over. They berate themselves for being thoughtless if they miss someone’s birthday or for not being good enough if they make a mistake in their work assignment.
Imagine what it would be like to judge yourself flawed for any less-than-perfect outcomes or actions.
In addition, the emotionally sensitive tend to see their own flaws as the reasons for others’ behavior. When a friend cancels lunch plans, it’s because they are boring to be around. When a boyfriend or girlfriend leaves, it’s because they aren’t loveable enough.
When people see personality characteristics or flaws as the reason for almost all difficulties or disappointments, this means they also tend to see these difficulties as unsolvable problems. This view results in repeated suffering, because they believe there’s nothing they can do about their personality and life will always be painful and difficult.
Practicing Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
In reality, it’s not possible to know someone’s intentions without asking them. When we are mindful, we see reality as it is without adding interpretations or judgments. Practicing mindfulness would be staying with the facts and not interpreting our own behavior or the behavior of others.
Next time you are aware of judging yourself as flawed or imagining the intentions of others, return to your mindfulness practice. Remember that you don’t know what you don’t know, and then consider self-compassion.
Note to Readers: My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the survey questions about being emotionally sensitive.
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Last reviewed: 9 Aug 2012