Why Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, and the fundamental attribution error are relevant to happiness.

One thing I do for the Happiness Project is to read memoirs of catastrophe – people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, etc.

Several months ago I read Gilda Radner’s interesting memoir, It’s Always Something, and yesterday I finished Gene Wilder’s equally interesting memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The two were married when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died, so reading the two memoirs gives a window into that experience from both perspectives.

One thing that made this story particularly striking to me is that I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder together, many years ago. It was in a drugstore somewhere in New York City, I can’t remember where. I do remember that Gilda Radner was carrying a little dog (named Sparkle, I know now after reading these memoirs).

A very peculiar aspect of fame is that fact that strangers remember the most fleeting encounters with you; it’s astonishing, really, that I remember seeing the two of them, for just a moment, so long ago.

One reason that I remember them was that I remarked on how serious they both seemed. They were speaking in low, intense voices and looked solemn. “Well, maybe they’re only funny and light-hearted when they’re acting,” I thought. “Maybe that’s how famous comedians are in person. Or maybe they’re trying to be inconspicuous, because they’re famous.”

In fact, this might have been the very day that Gilda Radner got a terrible report from her doctor. When I intersected with them would’ve been about the same time that she was sick. What for me was an ordinary day, with the fun of a celebrity sighting, might have been one of the worst days of their lives.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error — which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.”

I assumed that Radner’s and Wilder’s behavior reflected their characters; it never occurred to me that their behavior might reflect something happening to them.

Which reminds me – always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don’t take things personally. As Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, “Life is short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

Zoikes, I’m thrilled. Already 228 people have joined the Happiness Project group on Facebook. Visit, join, post, discuss! Today I’m going to throw out some discussion topics.

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  • Sharyn

    Gretchen –
    How wonderfully thought-provoking! This is one of the best examples to illustrate a concept that I’ve read in a long, long while.
    It also serves to remind me of something I deeply believe in: That at the bottom of it all, we’re all the same, equal, good souls created in God’s image – it’s the life stories and circumstances that make us so different.

  • Gretchen,
    Hi! I am new to your blog, and I love it! (I also joined the Facebook group! Yay!) Thanks for pointing out fundamental attribution error…that’s an important thing to remember, and something I don’t think of often enough. I think that remembering “always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me” will work wonders! Thanks again! =)

  • The fundamental attribution error is one of the key psychological things I think everyone should be aware of. It’s a great thing to try to keep in mind when dealing with people!
    Of course, you can turn it around, as well. If you shoot your mouth off, people aren’t likely to take into account that you’ve had a bad day — they’ll just think that’s how you are.

  • Hey Gretchen,
    I think of “attribution error” (especially in a relationship) like judging a city’s climate by ONE DAY of the weather. That would be nuts, but I’m sure we subconsciously do it all the time.
    Great blog — I read it every time you post!
    -Jeff Mac, manslations.com

  • Wow. It’s sad that someone who’s as good at making people laugh as Gene Wilder goes through something like that. You’d think he deserved good karma. (I don’t know Gilda’s work.)
    As far as attribution goes–it’s easy to justify our own rude actions on what’s happening to us. I’m trying to learn to allow for other possible explanations, at least some of the time. Seems like it would make us happier if we were more forgiving.

  • This is a great message; one that I try to remember when dealing with irritable colleagues. The reason they’re upset about their task for the day may have nothing to do with the task.

  • I find that it’s so easy to find excuses for my own bad behavior (I have particular trouble in situations where I’m trying to hurry and people are in my way) but then find it hard to cut other people slack. Flanner O’Connor said that we should “find explanations in charity” but that’s sometimes easier said than done.
    Nice to have a scientific name for it!

  • Nice reminders! I read that book about 20 years ago after finding it at a cabin. It touched me then. Thanks for reminding me about it. I remember thinking they were an amazing couple.

  • I’ll be reading this post to our team at tomorrow’s staff meeting. Coming to the dentist’s office in itself is enough to bring out the worst in people. I’m always telling our staff not to rush to judgement. You never know what someone is going through or dealing with. I know I’ve gotten through when I hear them coming up with reasons for why Mrs. Curmudgeon is being so grumpy today. Just today the point hit home when I announced to my boss that I knew our patient who was 20 mins. past due wasn’t going to show up because she had an overdue balance. The words were barely out of my mouth before I was eating them. She walked in and explained she had been caught in traffic and she had a check in her hand for the money she owed us. I would have been grateful to the floor if it had been kind enough to open up and swallow me at that point. To make matters worse I had just printed this post and shown it to my boss. He laughed and waved it in front of me and said, “I have something here for you to read.”
    Thanks, Linda

  • Michelle

    Great post!  I try to keep this in mind.  I haven’t read Gene Wilder’s memoir, but Gilda Radners’s book remains one of my all time favorites.  The ending is so lovely and sad.  Her voice is incredibly strong.  Lots of insight in her book, lots of pain.  The only other comedian memoir that comes closee for me is Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.

    • gretchenrubin

      I JUST put Born Standing Up on my library list. Glad to hear it’s worth reading.

  • Stefanie

    Thanks for this post!  I have a personal problem of constantly taking things personally and always feel I’m to blame for someone’s bad or sad mood.  I’ll definitely keep this all in mind.  

  • Joyce Oxfeld

    Thank you. I am ultra sensitive still about how people perceive me. Actions that seem hostile towards me. I have a background that would trend to not train me early enough to stay clear of fundamental attribution. But now I am in Cognitive therapy, with a good therapist. Today we will discuss a recent hurtful incident, which I hope will give me much insight as to form even better cognitive/coping skills.

  • lannabanana

    I love this…although I’ve had “take nothing personally, what others say and do has nothing to do with you” said to me by a superior at work to justify her trademark abrasiveness. She blamed my emotional immaturity, but the underlying message was, “I’m not going to change, no matter what you do.” For two years, I thought the problem would finally be solved once I became “mature” enough not to care about being abused. Then I wised up and quit. (Which may have been the real test of maturity all along.)

    I do think rule-of-thumb maxims can sometimes cover for genuinely bad behavior–and cast blame on the victim into the bargain–so it’s important not to jump to conclusions either way. But I admire the person who can witness offensive behavior and understand why it’s happening without actually taking offense. If your emotions aren’t flooded, it’s easier to know how to respond…even if that response includes avoiding that person until the end of time. And if you’re lucky, that may prove far from necessary when it turns out the person really was just having a bad day.