Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi’s quote — and others’ psychological research — suggest that we are designed to interact with each other. In fact, our interactions with others come second to our interaction with ourselves.
If interactions with others are so important, why do we struggle to initiate and maintain relationships?
A search on the Internet for articles on interaction/relationships reveals what appears to be innumerable research papers on verbal and nonverbal communication. However, many who highlight relationship-building skills ignore a crucial factor.
To rephrase Descartes (who famously said “I think, therefore I am”), “we think, therefore we interact” confirms that we first have some thought about the person we intend to interact with. If our cognitive processes set the tone for our interaction then highlighting errors in cognition is useful.
Within each of us is a little scientist who tries to understand and make sense of the world. In our interactions, this scientist helps us to make sense of others’ behavior. We observe and form hypotheses about why a person has behaved (or not behaved) a particular way in a given situation. Before asking, we have already gone through the process of testing our hypothesis and coming up with a theory.
The problem is that how we see others depends a great deal on the shades we are wearing. Several factors can affect the shades we choose to wear, including our mood, memories, experiences and thoughts.
In a technologically advanced world it is no surprise that we have information overload. At any point in time we are trying to interpret, process and remember a series of information. When we are faced with the task of interacting with someone, we do not have the mental energy to actively and consciously process all the details about this person and their behavior. We are forced to use mental time- and energy-saving shortcuts.
When we see others we engage in a process called attribution, assigning meaning to a person’s behavior. The way that you make sense of a person’s actions has tremendous impact on your later interaction and communication with them. Highlighting these errors is not meant to induce guilt; for the most part they occur automatically. Nevertheless, being aware of them can prevent you from responding to others on the basis of erroneous attributions.
Imagine that you are waiting on a colleague to start a meeting. She is already running 15 minutes late and you have not heard from her. She eventually strolls in, gives you a rushed apology and proceeds with the meeting. Your thoughts? “This person has no regard for me or my time. She is selfish, insensitive and unprofessional.”
Now consider how your interaction with your colleague will play out for the rest of the meeting. Would you have considered the external circumstances that played a role in her behavior? Would it occur to you that perhaps her baby-sitter canceled at the last minute, that there was an accident on the highway, that she has been having a rough time with the boss?
My guess is a resounding “no.” As humans, we have a tendency to explain human behavior, especially if it is undesirable, as stemming from traits. That is to say, we assume the behavior is based on personality. This occurs without consideration of external factors that may have contributed to their action. This is known as the fundamental attribution error.
Now imagine that you have just come home from a rough day at work and you are tired. You walk into a messy house, dishes in the sink and no dinner prepared. Your spouse is on the couch relaxing. You vehemently argue that he or she is lazy and inconsiderate. However, when the roles are reversed there is no uproar. In your opinion, you are simply tired and need to unwind.
This error is known as the actor-observer effect. It occurs because we are consciously aware of our internal state — thoughts, feelings, moods. We are not aware of others’ internal states. When explaining others’ behavior we base it on their disposition, but when explaining our behavior we base it on external circumstances.
Of course there are many other errors that can occur in day-to-day interaction. How do we avoid the risk these errors pose?
- If possible, ask questions. There is nothing wrong with asking someone why he or she acted in a particular manner. It provides clarification and allows you to make an informed decision.
- Consider all the information available to you. Is the person’s behavior consistent? If not, chances are he or she may be acting in direct response to some external cue.
- Avoid making judgments when there is information overload. Consider relaxing, de-stressing, engaging in self-care or meditating before deciding on the reason for a person’s behavior.
- Keep in mind that attribution is not a bad thing. it helps us to make sense of the world.