Why do people believe that they can predict another person’s behaviour based on situations?

Give them the benefit of doubt

“I don’t believe you slept in and forgot to turn in your assignment. You always get good marks.”

“I would have never thought you’d dance so much at the party. You’re usually so reserved.”

Have you ever felt miffed when friends or acquaintances pass judgments as if they know you better than you know yourself? Sure, you get good grades. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t forget to submit an assignment, especially under trying circumstances. And the friend who categorises you as reserved has met you less than a handful of times. You might have come across as reserved because you were hanging out with those who you weren’t particularly close to. But at your best friend’s 21st bash, you let your hair down and danced the night away. None of your close friends was baffled by your exuberance on the dance floor.

Every introductory psychology textbook discusses this phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s one of the most robust findings of social psychology that has stood the test of time. About 50 years of research suggests that we cannot accurately predict another person’s behaviour based on dispositional information alone. Yet, people persist in believing that they can. In their classic book, The Person and the Situation, Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett dissect this phenomenon of overplaying personal traits and undermining situational factors while understanding the behaviour of others but, at the same time, discounting our own flaws as contextually driven.

Famous test

In a much-cited experiment, students at a seminary first filled out a personality questionnaire. Then they were told to go to another building to deliver a practice lecture. Half the students were told that they were running late, while the other half were told to proceed as though they still had time. On their way, the students encountered a man slumped in an alleyway.

Which students were most likely to help the man? The factor that best predicted whether students would help the man was perceived hurriedness. Only 10% of students who were running late stopped to help, whereas 63% of the other group aided the man.

This experiment demonstrates how situational variables can override personality traits in predicting people’s behaviour. But why do we continue to believe in the power of personality traits in predicting behaviour? One reason is that we conflate situational variables with a person’s traits without realising that people play multiple roles in their lives.

Most students typically see their professors only in college (though the pandemic did change that) where their role is to impart knowledge. As a result, professors appear professorial and professional.

Now suppose you encounter one of your profs on a beach in Goa, where the lady who always wears crisp starched saris is lolling on the sand in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Does it mean that your Chemistry prof’s personality transformed overnight or that you were exposed only to a limited slice of her persona?

Ross and Nisbett also argue that we tend to be influenced by our first impressions of a person, though they may not necessarily be an accurate portrayal.

Further, we tend to interpret the subsequent behaviour of the person through the lens of our first impressions.

Imagine you are introduced to a stranger, who seems very friendly. Later, that night, you hear him/her make a snarky comment. As your first impression was positive, you will tend to view the person’s sarcasm as a sign of his/her jocularity instead of revising your opinion of his/her amiability.

Incomplete information

Another reason for us falling prey to this cognitive bias is that we don’t have ready access to another person’s thoughts, beliefs and motivations. Additionally, we don’t have complete information regarding the situational factors that drive behaviour. As a result, we tend to make snap judgments and attribute it to personality. So, if a colleague is brusque at a meeting, we assume that curtness is his characteristic feature. On the other hand, if we are blunt during an interaction, we excuse our rudeness by telling ourselves we are running late and have deadlines to meet.

I would like to add a caveat here. This existence of the Fundamental Attribution Error does not imply that personality traits are irrelevant or don’t exist. But really getting to know people involves interacting with them over time in diverse milieus. But, apart from family and close friends, our interactions with other people are limited to certain situations and settings, which poses limits on how well we truly understand them.

So, instead of passing hasty judgments on people’s characters, especially when their behaviour is unfavourable, perhaps, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Just as we excuse our own misdemeanours to specific situational impulses, let us extend this same generosity to other folks as well.

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