A fundamental mistake.

About a thousand years ago, I read in a social psychology textbook about something called the Fundamental Attributional Error. Simply put, it means that when people do something to piss us off, we assume that it’s a reflection on the person rather than on the behaviour.

Often this is helpful. It’s pretty safe to assume that a mass murderer is almost certainly not a safe person to be around. Adolph Hitler probably wasn’t misunderstood. He was probably just a pretty nasty man. Especially in a world where safety isn’t guaranteed, where a billion petty cruelties and hurts abound, where rape and assault and murder are part and parcel of our daily news headlines, the Fundamental Atrributional Error can be something that keeps us safe.

But it can do us – and those around us – a pretty big disservice, too. The boy serving you in the pharmacy, who looks at you blankly when you ask which aisle the Panadol can be found? He’s not an idiot – he just got a dressing-down from his boss and he can’t step outside of his humilliation to answer your simple question. The nasty brat who made your kid’s life a misery in the playground yesterday, and who needs a good slap? Actually, he watched his dad slap his mother around the night before last. The friendly, cheerful girl who always remembers your name and jokes around as she sells you your morning latte? She drinks at night to cope with how miserable she feels, all the time. The pretty woman in payroll who thinks she’s better than you and never answers your greeting when you walk past her in the mornings? Actually, she doesn’t realise you’re talking to her because it would never cross her mind that she’s interesting to other people.

The problem with the Fundamental Attributional Error is that we assume that a person is the same as their behaviour. There’s a lot of behaviour I’m proud of – but there’s a lot of behaviour that I hope desperately I’m not judged by. Because when we judge people by their behaviour, often we fail to see who they really are. We do not meet the person. We do not come face to face with the spark of the Sacred that animates each of us.

And that’s a tragedy.


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