The benefit of the doubt

Jul 14 2013 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

Have you ever noticed that when you make an error, mess up or miscalculate, you tend to point to some environmental, organizational, or life factor as an excuse? In other words, it's not your fault. It's not about you. It's not your own character that's at fault. But on the other hand, when someone else messes up, how often do you find some character flaw in them that (you assume) caused them to behave in the way they did?

What's operating here is a dynamic called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). In essence, the FAE says that when we judge the actions of other people, we tend to focus on their personality, values, motives or attitudes while discounting their immediate situation or life circumstances as a reason for their behavior. We assume that we "know" the other person and then judge them on that basis, ignoring the broader context which may be influencing them.

Consider these situations.

1. On the way out of the building, I pass a co-worker and say "hi." S/he acts like s/he doesn't even see me, eyes down, nary a word. I assume s/he's thoughtless, self-absorbed, unfriendly or even an absent-minded jerk.

2. My partner returns home after work and immediately goes to his/her computer. Not a "hello" or even a glance, just a bee-line movement past me to rush online. I choose to make a judgement about how disrespectful and uncaring s/he is.

In both circumstances, I have made judgements and assumptions that point to the other's personality or character on the basis that I "know" them and what's going on in their life.

What I don't know

In the first example, the individual just learned her seventeen-year-old son was in a car accident and has been rushed to hospital in critical condition. In the second, my partner was told at 4:45 pm there was a chance she would be let go next week and she should check her email tonight for further information (unavailable when she was at the office) about the company's possible next steps.

The important question is why it seldom occurs to us that someone may be 'otherwise engaged' in deep thought or reflection based on some challenging life circumstance or event?

The point here is to be self-aware, conscious of the degree to which so much of our habitual and patterned behaviors Ė and especially our interactions with others - are driven by ego, judgement and reactivity.

The Antidote to the FAE

The psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg observed that "when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion."

One way to understand the FAE phenomena is to be curious about how we view and connect with others, be it at work or at home. What is the "frame" within which we relate to others?

Try this exercise:

Imagine three walls. On one there are ten framed pictures (all ten are the same picture) of the individual in the first situation above. On the second wall there are ten similar pictures of your partner and on the third wall, ten of yourself. Under each frame is a blank label.

Next, label each individual in the pictures in any way you wish.

When done, consider the labels, including those you pinned on yourself. How many of the labels reflect a "task-orientation" and how many reflect a "person-orientation"? How many reflect an objective, functional, role-playing or positional orientation? How many reflect a subjective, heart-felt or human orientation?

Who's judging - and the benefit of the doubt

These labels provide insight into what's operating in us when we judge others. When we come from an impersonal, officious or "business-like" orientation, (even when we're not at work), we're more inclined to be harsh, objective and judgmental.

On the other hand, when we come from a heart-felt, subjective and personal orientation, it's often easier to be more conscious of our reactivity and so more willing to relate to someone as a person rather than a function. And it's easier, too, to give others the benefit of the doubt without making assumptions about their character, attitudes, values or motives. If we accept that we don't know chapter and verse about someone else (even our closest friends or loved ones), we are much less likely to judge them and much more likely to accept that their life circumstances and context can affect their behavior. Without assumptions and inferences, we are already on the way to becoming more empathic, compassionate and accepting.

Why the FAE is our default mode


  • Am I prone to inferring what I think is motivating another to act negatively?
  • When I behave inappropriately, do I usually try to justify my negative behaviour?
  • Do I own my negative actions?
  • Do I ever consider how I'd behave if I were in another's moccasins?
  • Am I willing to consider unseen causes for another's negative behavior?
  • Can I be compassionate toward others who behave inappropriately?
  • Am I generally judgmental about others? What does that get me?
  • Is there someone on my team or in my family about whom I can be less judgmental, and more understanding?
  • Am I a master of the art form of blame?
  • How do I feel when someone judges me without understanding my life context?

Simple. It's easier (and less scary) to judge others than it is to get to know ourselves. Judging others lets us off the hook of self-awareness, self-responsibility and self-management. Judging others' motives and values allows us to forego looking at the truth of the values and motives that underpin our own behaviors and attitudes.

What's more, because we don't know (and / or don't care) about what's really going on in someone else's life, we find it easier to focus on the person, rather than their context, assuming, comparing and criticizing based on what we think we know about them.

Native Americans approach the FAE in this way: "Don't judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins."

Another way of looking at it is that everyone is in Chapter Three of their life. No one knows what transpired in Chapters One and Two. You are no different. Similarly, when they get up the morning, no-one says, "I'm going to be a jerk today." So don't assume you know their motives for acting.

When you approach life with integrity and authenticity, you are much more likely to forego the FAE trap and avoid prejudge others. Show up in that frame of mind and acceptance, forgiveness, empathy and understanding will soon follow.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.