"Instead of attributing all
problems to personal failure, think of the
complexity of your behavior. Take responsibility for
your behavior, but don't blame yourself."
Simple Explanations for Others' Behavior.
A natural human tendency is to simplify explanations,
especially explanations regarding the behavior of other
people. Even science teaches the importance of being
parsimonious; in other words, don't use a complex
explanation when a simple one will do. However, many
times we over-simplify the cause of behavior, both as
individuals and as a science.
Fundamental Attribution Error.
In social psychology, a concept known as "the
fundamental attribution error" describes the tendency to
view too much of someone else's behavior as related to
internal factors. For instance, if a person is fired
from a job, we may think, "That person is incompetent,"
even though we could as easily think, "That job was not
right for that person." We tend to believe that the
problems other people have are due to some internal
fault or flaw and we tend to over-estimate the degree of
the person's responsibility.
Complex Explanations for Our Own Behavior.
Interestingly, we tend to view our own behavior in a
more complex manner: we attribute our own failures to
external factors and our successes to internal factors.
If we get fired from a job, we may think, "My boss had
it in for me," whereas, if we get promoted, we may
think, "I am intelligent and hard-working." This concept
is even more complex, however, because individuals
disposed to depression think in the opposite manner:
they attribute their failures to internal flaws and
their successes to luck. Therefore, in the same
situation of being fired from a job, they may think, "I
deserved it because I'm an incompetent idiot."
How These Explanations Affect Us.
So why is all this important? Because the way we make
attributions about behavior affects relationships and
self-esteem. If we over-simplify behavior, we may
contribute to poor self-esteem, or ruin a relationship.
Think about a recent argument you had, preferably one
that focused on your behavior. Now think about how much
of the argument was due to the other individual
over-simplifying the reasons for your behavior followed
by your attempts to justify the behavior. You may be
surprised to see how many disagreements relate to this
tendency to overlook the complexities of human behavior.
For example, a woman tells her husband that he doesn't
care about her because he forgot about her birthday. In
this example she simply equates forgetting her birthday
with not caring. However, from her husband's view, his
forgetting may be much more complex. His family of
origin may not have celebrated birthdays, and so, his
concept of the importance of birthdays may be different
than his wife's notion. Or, he may have been
experiencing a number of stressful situations that
required a great deal of energy. Or, the neurological
make-up of his brain may not be conducive to remembering
dates. These three possibilities cover the areas of
learning history, current environmental stresses, and
biological predispositions. None of them have anything
to do with whether he cares about his wife or not.
What makes human behavior even more interesting is that
the three possibilities elaborated above may all be
involved in a single behavior. Thus, the man above may
have his background, stress, and genetics working
against him in remembering birthdays. But his wife made
the simple attribution that his behavior indicated he
didn't care about her. I'll leave it to your imagination
what may happen next in their interaction due to her not
understanding the complexity of his behavior.
Understanding the complexity of human behavior doesn't
mean that we excuse people's behavior; it just means we
allow for more complex explanations. Such a stance is
particularly crucial in interactions with children as
they are heavily influenced by adults' responses. For
instance, if a father criticizes his son for not paying
attention in school and attributes this problem to
laziness, the boy may begin to think of himself as lazy.
This occurs especially when the child has no alternative
explanation. One possible explanation may be that the
child has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which is a
biological condition. However, until recently, the
variability in the performance of children with ADD led
many people to choose the simple explanation that the
child wasn't trying. Often, we need to look beyond these
simple explanations to see what the real problem may be.
Quickly attributing a simple explanation can blind us to
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR?
Appreciating the complexities of human behavior involves
understanding that we are biological beings--that our
basic make-up, such as intelligence or disposition, is
part of our genetic coding. However, that genetic coding
is influenced by our experiences, which includes both
our learning history and our current stresses. For
instance, an individual may be born with a
predisposition to develop an above average intelligence.
However, poor nutrition and lack of environmental
stimulation may result in an intelligence level that
falls short of the genetic coding.
In the area of mental and physical disorders, the
"diathesis-stress" model for illness explains that a
"diathesis", or predisposition, exists within a
particular individual for a specific illness. Having a
predisposition means that the individual has the
tendency to develop the illness under certain
conditions. However, this explanation also means that
the individual will not develop the disorder or that the
disorder may not be as severe under certain conditions.
What I have noticed in my practice is that those clients
who have the most severe anxiety or depression often
grew up with parents with similar problems. Thus, they
have both the genetic coding and the learning from their
parents' modeling of irrational thinking and behavior.
We can think of many of our personality traits in a
similar manner. If we take a child with a high activity
level and put her in an environment where she must sit
still and then criticize her when she doesn't, she may
develop low self-esteem and begin to act in an
oppositional and defiant manner. Whereas, a similar
child whose energy is accepted and directed, may learn
to focus his activity in a goal-directed way and feel
good about himself.
As you see, behavior is not as simple as "will-power" or
the individual's fault. As a society, we need to begin
to look at behavior in it's complexity instead of trying
to place blame. This allows us to explore the behavior
less judgmentally. Such a stance permits the individual
to examine his or her behavior without being defensive.
HOW CAN I USE THIS UNDERSTANDING TO BENEFIT MY LIFE?
Identify the attribution.
First, when you find yourself upset by certain behavior
of others, ask yourself why you are upset. If you find
yourself blaming the other person, such as "He's doing
that on purpose," see if you can think of other possible
causes of the behavior. For instance, you might consider
when a child is screaming for your attention, "He's
behaving this way because he learned this behavior gets
him attention." By thinking of such possibilities, it
gives you an opportunity to respond in a helpful manner.
You might decide to reinforce appropriate behavior and
ignore the screaming. Or in another scenario where
someone is ignoring you, instead of taking it
personally, you might think "Maybe she has an anxiety
disorder that makes it difficult to talk with people."
If you begin to think about other possibilities such as
these, you may find it easier to cope with situations
and know what to do.
Recognize the complexity of behavior.
Second, if you have a tendency toward depression, you
need to give yourself a break. Instead of attributing
all problems to personal failure, think of the
complexity of your behavior. Take responsibility for
your behavior, but don't blame yourself. What I mean by
this is to accept the consequences resulting from your
behavior, but don't degrade yourself for making
mistakes. For instance, if you start an exercise
program, and you don't exercise for a week, instead of
berating yourself for failing, just start again. Tell
your-self, "The most important thing is trying, not
whether I succeed or not." Such an attitude actually
allows you to accomplish more rather than spending
energy to blame yourself.
Recognize the biology of behavior.
Third, recognize the importance of biology and accept
your limitations and the limitations of others. Some
people are not biologically inclined to be Olympic
athletes; other people are not meant to be thin; and
others are not inclined to be color coordinated. We have
our differences, our talents, and our limitations. We
can not be perfect in everything. Each of us needs to
accept ourselves as we are. By truly accepting
ourselves, we will also be able to accept other people.
Such a recognition also allows you to accept mental illness as no different than
physical illness. If you don't blame yourself or others
for physical illness, then don't place blame for mental
illness. As with any illness, it is our responsibility
to do what is necessary to take care of ourselves. One
way to do so is to learn the skills to manage our lives.
The way we think and cope with stress affects not only
our mental health, but also, our physical health.
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