Why we judge wrong and fail in understanding others

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All our lives we are interested in knowing about people and the world around us. We use social information available to judge others and evaluate situations. Some feelings develop as a result of these experiences. The use of such information to understand others and the social world that exists around us is social cognition.

People use mental shortcuts to understanding individuals and situations quickly. Like all shortcuts, they have their benefits as well as limitations. Other forms of biases may also enter and influence our judgements. Other forms of biases may also enter and affect our judgements. Emotions too play a role in our understanding. All these constitute the study of social cognition. Just like in attribution, in social cognition also, people use the least amount of cognitive effort in arriving at conclusions about people and situations. Only on rare conditions are people willing to spend extra time and effort in coming to an understanding of the social world.

Heuristics refers to experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning and discovery. Heuristics methods are used to speed up the process of finding a good enough solution, where an exhaustive search is impractical. Examples of this method include using a ‘rule of thumb’, an educated guess, an intuitive judgement or common sense. Heuristics can explain how people make decisions, solve problems and make a judgement.  These heuristic rules work well for most of the situations, but in certain cases, it may lead to systematic errors or cognitive biases.

Biases in understanding others:

We often find ourselves weak in understanding others. This is mainly attributed to three major bias according to psychological research scholars. Attribution is not to be viewed as a very rational process following orderly cognitive steps. Several types of biases can creep into this process. Types of errors that can harm the attribution processes are as follows:

  1. Overestimating the role of dispositional factors
  2. Actor – Observer Effect
  3. Self – Serving Bias

Overestimating the role of dispositional factors:

A person comes late to a meeting. His hair is in a mess, and he drops some important papers, and as he is rushing, he knocks over a table and later spills coffee on his clothes, while drinking. The ready attribution made would be a clumsy, disorganized person. However, it is possible that he was late because of some traffic holdup, dropped his papers because the floor was slippery and dropped the tray because the cup was wobbly. These missing potential causes can be regarded as a fundamental attribution error caused by a strong tendency to overestimate dispositional factors. Therefore in the mentioned example, the internal factors got more attention than the external ones, leading to the attribution error. Thus, the neglect of situational factors and greater importance that was given to internal/dispositional factors in trying to understand a given behavior has to be watched out for.

Actor-Observer Effect:

We tend to attribute our behavior to external factors, but we tend to see the behavior of other people as caused by internal factors. It occurs because we are aware of the situational factors affecting our reactions, but as observers, we are less aware of these factors when we see the actions of others. It means our role as an actor is different from our role as an observer. Both these positions lead to attribution errors.

When we want to find the cause of our behavior, we have the tendency to attribute our behavior to external factors, but when it comes to others, we have the tendency to attribute their behavior to their internal factors. When we miss the ball while playing, we say that it is because of the due or humidity, but when someone else misses the ball, we say that he messed it up. When your drive your car and somebody overtakes you, you call him a jerk or labeling them with some negative personality trait. But when you overtake someone, you don’t think so and attribute that you have an urgent meeting or some appointment.

Self-Serving Bias:

It is a normal human tendency to attribute positive outcomes or result in internal causes and negative outcomes to external causes, leading to errors in attribution. For example, if a student does well in the exam, means that he/she is bright. However, when a student does poorly on an exam, the teacher was no good, the questions were out of syllabus, or the marking was strict.

If we make a mistake, we find a lot of reasons to attribute your mistake. But we don’t attribute success to any external situation when we succeed.

Self-fulfilling prophecy: In Facebook, people make a lot of personal comments about others without knowing anything about the person just to make sure that their prejudice is correct.

Reasons for attribution biases

There are two explanations are given for the occurrence of such conflicts – cognitive and motivational. The cognitive model indicates that self-serving bias stems from the way we process social information. There is a need to protect our ego, so when we succeed, outcomes are attributed to internal causes and when we fail they are attributed to external causes. The need to look good in the eyes of others and manage our self-esteem is the motivational explanation for the presence of self-serving bias. Failure is attributed to external causes in those conditions which are beyond our control. Luck is an external factor used in attributions of failure by most people. Self-serving bias protects and preserves the self-esteem. Attributions help in understanding, but they have to be carried out with care.

About Prabakaran Thirumalai 809 Articles
Blogger on topics including Life Skills such as Learning, Thinking, Emotional Intelligence, Motivation, and Social Skills.

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