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Seeing beyond what is easy to see

He did it again. Every morning he runs down a corridor and joins a meeting ten minutes too late. Such an irresponsible guy. He’s never on time and shows no respect to others.

Most of us jump to this conclusion without any effort. But what if we knew that person better? What if we knew what that person does and thinks every day, hour by hour? And if we found out he has to choose between catching an early train to arrive on time and a later one that leaves him an hour more to spend with his terminally ill daughter, would we think of him differently?

People are complex beings. There are many layers and dimensions to each of us and most of them are hidden. We forget that we see the consequences, but not the causes, and so we link people’s behavior to their character more than to external factors. In psychology, this bias is known as the fundamental attribution error.

The exercise

To avoid this bias as much as possible, I do a particular exercise when I have time to spare. Airports and train stations are good places because there are a lot of people around. I find one person and observe. What do I see?

Oh, here’s one. A teen in a leather jacket and tight worn-out jeans. Long and messy pink hair intertwine with headphone wires connected to an iPod. She looks tired and resigned.

The stage is set. Can I hear her internal monologue?
The party last night was great, but coming home at 4 in the morning means I have to explain myself to my dear mother. Again. She’s such a pain. She worries about minor things, sets stupid curfews, and probably wants to stop me from doing everything she’s done when she was my age. Lucky me she doesn’t know about Justin. I hope he’ll bring booze tonight. And other things. I can’t afford it since the witch-mother slashed my allowance. Oh I hate her.

This was too easy. Disturbing, right? I’ll try a different version.
I wasn’t invited to a birthday party, again. Nothing worked in the last year and it seems I just can’t fit in. I even destroyed my hair by following their pointless trends. Oh my, the exam for the music academy is in four weeks. I would really love to get in, but evenings are busy escorting my little brother to the play group, so I can practice only late at night. I won’t make it. The only upside of a blind audition is they won’t see sagging bags under my eyes and this pink monstrosity. Huh. If girls in the school knew about the violin, they wouldn’t talk to me at all. Who cares. Bach rocks.

One more.
Damn dogs. They come as fluffy puppies, get under your skin, become a member of the family, and then leave too early. I miss you Dot.

Three different narratives, three different impressions. If I tell myself only one story, I tend to stick with it and declare it the truth. But as I imagine more scenarios, the chance of any one being true approaches zero. This helps me internalize that the first explanation that comes to mind for someone’s behavior is probably wrong. It also builds tolerance towards other people.

Noticing someone’s behavior is easy, but seeing beyond that, understanding the cause, is hard. Don’t do it lightly.


Don’t miss this one:
Don’t become an artist

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