Blog: The Problem with Making Things Personal - 2018-11-22

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F0.png The Problem with Making Things Personal November 22, 2018, Chris Shelton, Critical Thinker at Large

Hey everyone, so I thought this might be a useful and short lesson in critical thinking that may help you out with unruly relatives you may encounter at the Thanksgiving feast. I doubt this will help you win any arguments, but sometimes just knowing what's really going on can be a way to hold on to your sanity and calm. And as usual, this is something that applies to all of us and not just your evil relatives so maybe this can help make you a clearer and more rational thinker too.

Every day we see people do things and wonder what caused them to do it. We want to attribute their behavior to something that makes sense to us so we can feel like we understand why things are happening the way they are. In the field of psychology, our tendency to do this is called attribution.

However, almost all of the time, we don't actually have all the data to make valid and informed conclusions about other people's behavior and so we just make things up based on whatever we do know. And according to a lot of social science studies about attribution, we know that we have a tendency to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors when we are judging other people's behavior. In other words, we ignore that circumstances can shape how people act. This tendency to make things personal is called the fundamental attribution error because it's so widespread and significant to our thinking. The shortest version of this I've seen is that we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people but let's look at a couple of examples.