A Little Happier: You’re a Jerk, and I’m a Responsible Parent 

I love the TV show The Office, and I love the podcast Office Ladies, which is a recap podcast hosted by Jenna Fischer (who played Pam) and Angela Kinsey (who played Angela).

Often, when I listen to the show, I’m reminded of an interesting psychological phenomenon, the fundamental attribution error.”

The fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behavior in other people, while under-emphasizing the role of situations.

In other words, we often judge other people for their actions without considering what external factors might have influenced them. For ourselves, however, we’re much more aware of situational factors, and we’re more likely to attribute our behavior to circumstances than to our personality.

So if you talk on your phone in a movie theater, you’re a rude, selfish person. If I talk on my phone in a movie theater, I’m a concerned, responsible parent who’s worried when a call come in from the babysitter. We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge others by their actions.

I’m reminded of this principle when I listen to the Office Ladies podcast.

Over and over, on the podcast, listeners write in about a particularly funny scene to ask, “Was it scripted or was it improvised?” And the thing is, that scene was always scripted; it was never improvised. We think that it must be the actor who is so funny, because they’re behaving in such a funny way. We don’t ask, “Who might be writing these lines?”

Now, to be clear, that example doesn’t exactly illustrate the fundamental attribution error.

But hearing those listener comments and thinking about the fundamental attribution error reminds me of the larger lesson: It’s very easy for us to misattribute the source of behavior.

Don’t judge, don’t assume that this person is acting this way because “That’s the kind of person they are.” Maybe they’re in a rush, maybe there’s an emergency, maybe someone very funny is writing their lines, maybe factors that I don’t see are shaping what I observe.

If you want to listen to an interview that Elizabeth and I did with Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, it’s episode 381.




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