Why we’re looking at strangers all wrong

My favorite thing that I learned in psychology was actually one of the simpler theories. Nothing fancy, but it blew my mind and made me realize how wrong we are in times we believe that we’re right.

I’m talking about the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE for short). If you’ve taken an introductory psychology course, you’d have heard about it.

Put simply, the FAE is a tendency that we overestimate how much someone’s personal attributes are influencing their actions, and we underestimate how much that someone’s situation is influencing their actions.* Sorry to break it to you, fellow earthlings, but humans make a lot of mistakes that we are not always aware of.

For example, have you ever been cut off by that idiot during rush hour? He’s a total a**hole, right? But here’s another question, and be honest about this one. Have you ever cut someone off during rush hour? Chances are you have, and you probably don’t consider yourself a bad driver or bad person. In your eyes, it was all about the situation, right? Essentially, you had a good reason, but the other guy didn’t.

You might be right about that person being a bad driver. But what if you’re wrong?

Photo by Peter Fazekas on Pexels.com

What happens when the FAE is present in our daily lives, in every interaction with a stranger? We become adamant that we know who that person is, when really we have no idea. Chances are, if we were in that same situation, we would have acted the same way.

We lose compassion, empathy, and a potential connection with that human being.

Here’s my suggestion – next time you begin to judge someone, take a moment to remember the FAE. The world may start to look differently: the driver who you thought was recklessly speeding may be rushing to see a friend in the hospital. The teacher who you thought was inconsiderate of her students may be going through a divorce. The person hogging all of the coffee at work may have had to stay up all night with a sick child.

Become more human.

Wouldn’t you want others to give you the benefit of the doubt as well?

Note that I’m not looking for excuses for rude behavior – I am acknowledging that I don’t know as much as I think I do. Besides, who am I to pass a verdict on a stranger? It’s not helpful to them or to myself.

If you’re looking to improve your knee-jerk reaction to strangers, here are a few ways to do so:

  1. Do a loving-kindness meditation regularly (join my weekly, donation-based session here)
  2. Listen to stories from people unlike yourself (e.g. autobiographies)
  3. Read Talking with Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  4. Watch or read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who
  5. Focus on yourself and your actions rather than others’

Thoughts? Can you remember any time you inaccurately assumed the reasoning behind someone’s behavior? I’d love to hear your examples!

Stay radiant,


*This tendency is common in the US, it may differ across cultures.

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