by Omar Jamil
According to Wikipedia, Fundamental Attribution Error is “people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.” But what exactly does that mean? Let’s look at an example:
I am running late for a meeting in which I am giving a presentation. Why am I running late for the meeting? I am suffering from a bad cold, so it took me a while to get out of bed because I had a bad headache. After showering I had to let my hair dry before I went outside, I don’t want to make my cold worse! I am scrambling to get everything together, working through a haze of sickness. I check my phone at 9:07am and see that someone from the meeting has texted me, with no time to see what he said I grab my things and run out the door. Overall, my morning routine was pushed back 20 minutes. When I arrive I hope everyone will realize that I am sick and that my illness caused my tardiness. After all, its not like I can control whether I am sick or not! After the 20 minute delay, the meeting finally begins.
Let’s flip the script now.
I am sitting in a meeting at 9:02am, the meeting was supposed to start 2 minutes ago. The person who was supposed to present today is still not here. Ugh, they are so irresponsible, how could they be late to the meeting they are presenting in!? Another 5 minutes go by, 9:07am. You know, he’s pretty lazy, I bet this 9am meeting was a real push for him anyway, I doubt he is even awake. I shoot him a quick, slightly passive aggressive text, but no response. He’s probably ignoring my text, what a jerk. At 9:20am the presenter finally comes rumbling into the room, blowing his nose as he puts his things down, obviously sick. He has such terrible sleeping habits, I bet his immune system really suffers from him not taking care of himself. After the 20- minute delay, the meeting finally begins.
The short story helps us understand Fundamental Attribution Error. When we make a mistake, we tend to focus on the circumstances that resulted in the mistake. We realize that external factors contribute to many of our shortcomings and we also hope that others will recognize these. Ironically, while we hope others will give us the benefit of the doubt, we rarely give them the benefit of the doubt. When others make mistakes we usually attribute those errors to ingrained problems in the person’s behavior.
This Fundamental Attribution Error has a negative impact on our hearts in 2 ways:
- We constantly make excuses for our own shortcomings, refusing to acknowledge how internal problems contribute to them
- We point out the flaws of others (often wrongfully so), becoming complacent in our own development and developing other sins of the heart (hatred, jealousy, mistrust etc.)
The Prophet SAW said, “Overlook the slips of respected people” [Bukhari in al-Adab al-Mufrad], meaning that we should give people the benefit of the doubt and overlook their flaws. Note, that the Prophet SAW said a respected person. This does not mean that you should give a stranger your wallet and give them the benefit of the doubt. It does mean that if you see a Muslim brother walking with a girl, you should assume they are talking about something important, or simply overlook what you saw and move on (if something becomes a pattern, sometimes you should advise them in the appropriate way, but this is a different discussion). To this point Hamdun al-Qassar, one of the great early Muslims, said, “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” [Imam Bayhaqi, Shu`ab al-Iman, 7.522]. This does not mean that you should literally make a list of 70 excuses when you see someone make a mistake, but rather, that you should try your absolute best to assume the best of others.
Not only will this skill help you in your relationship with others, but as Hamdun al-Qassar indicates, people that constantly see the flaws of others are actually flawed themselves! The Prophet SAW said that, “A believer is a mirror of the believer.” [Abu Dawud] meaning that what we see in others is a reflection of what we have inside. So we should make excuses for people, overlook their faults, focus on the good in others and hope that as a result of that, we develop goodness in ourselves.
In his commencement speech to Stanford in 2012, Corey Booker tells a beautiful story which hits on many of these lessons, and emphasizes how we should not only have a positive outlook of the people around us, but of the world around us.
(Starting at 16:40 in the video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ39FswOyFk
“Newark had so many strong neighborhoods but I sought out one that was in struggle and found it on Martin Luther King Boulevard. It looked spectacularly troublesome to me. My eyes saw abandoned homes being used for drugs. My eyes saw violence. My eyes saw graffiti. But the first person I met, the tenant leader in high-rise projects that I would eventually move into, Miss Jones, she said to me, “Tell me again what you see. Describe what you see around you.” And I described what I saw.
And she looked at me and she said, “Boy, if that’s all you see, you can never help me.” And I go, “What do you mean?” And she goes, “You need to understand something, that the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. And, if you see only problems and darkness and despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But, if you’re one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes, you see hope, opportunity, possibility, love – even the face of God – then you can help me make a change.” And I remember, after she said that, looking at her, scratching my head, and thinking to myself – OK, grasshopper, thus endeth the lesson.”