When I look back at my long marriage to a man who was emotionally damaged and took that damage out on me, I wonder why I stuck it out so long. I think of myself as intelligent, mature and courageous and yet all these character traits seemed absent within the four walls of our private lives. Allowing someone to abuse me for so long just doesn’t seem possible given my personality.
The study of social psychology has led me to a concept called ‘attribution bias’. We all believe that one’s behaviour is caused by something, or to put it another way, we act a certain way for a reason. And what we all conclude, in our lives and in judging others, is that our behaviour is a direct result of our disposition. A man at a pub with his mates shuns another man with a different skin colour and we label him a racist. A woman walks past an injured man on the street without stopping and we assume that woman is cold and heartless.
What scientists have demonstrated in various social experiments is that the situation a person in has a huge effect on how they act. Peer pressure, competing obligations, even simply being in hurry can make a person act differently to their own internal moral compass. In one example, a priest who was on his way to deliver a sermon about the good Samaritan walked straight past an obviously sick and distressed man on the street. The situation? He had been told he was running late and needed to get to his congregation as quickly as possible.
[Psychologists] Jones and Harris (1967) hypothesized [...] that people would attribute apparently freely chosen behaviors to disposition, and apparently chance-directed behaviors to situation. The hypothesis was confounded by the fundamental attribution error.
Subjects read essays for and against Fidel Castro, and were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude towards Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris’ initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer’s positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to properly see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers.
Now, when I look back on my long marriage I don’t see it as my own personal failure of character but an example of situational forces bearing down on me. I believed marriage was a non-negotiable contract I couldn’t get out of, I didn’t want to disappoint my family by getting divorced, and it some ways, it was easier to stay than to go.
Dear friends, I encourage you to think about your own life. Is there something you do (or don’t do) that you just don’t understand. It might not be because you need more personal development but because of the situation you’re in. That binge problem? Have you ever been in a situation where it didn’t happen? What about when you were on holiday, or working on that special project? Could it be that where you are is more important than who you are?
And those people you judge as evil, bad, careless, ignorant or crazy — maybe if their circumstances were different, they would act differently.
When you ask yourself, Why am I doing this? take a moment to consider where you are. And when your mother is sharp with you on the phone, remember it might not be because she doesn’t love you, but because she has been up all night dealing with insomnia and the worrying pain in her lower back.
People aren’t always dysfunctional because they are flawed humans, more times than you’d imagine, it’s because of where they are.
Have you ever acted out of character in a stressful situation?