Saturday, January 3, 2009

Social-Thinking, Part I


Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression,
but say, “Impression, wait for me a little.
Let me see what you are and what you represent.”

Social cognition scholars study how people make sense of other people (as well as how they make sense of themselves). Social cognition tells us about our social thinking.

Yardstick #1. Real world events I already know about. One of the ways a person thinks about other people is by comparing them to real world events. Things a person has experienced may become the yardstick by which deception and exaggeration, for example.

Yardstick #2. What I think I would have done. A second way a person approaches thinking about the behaviors of the people is by comparing them to their imagination of how they think they would have behaved under the circumstances (neglecting to account for the fact that based on their personality and life choices, they likely would never be in that situation!). The framing yardstick for judging the behavior of another person is always “I.”

Attributions: What did she DO that?

Why wasn’t I invited? Why did he say it THAT way? Why did he get fired? Why did she give me that gift? Why didn’t he call me? Everyday life presents events to persons that require explanation—about causes. Persons are asked to identify what factors gave rise to what outcomes. Various theories of attribution deal with how people use information to arrive at causal explanations for events, examining what information people use and what information they ignore.

The Curious Case of the Fundamental Attribution Error

When a person (social perceiver) is WRONG about what caused something to happen, theat person has made a normal everyday causal attribution error. One of the primary sources for error in judging what caused a social behavior is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The nature of social perception is that people judge the behaviors of other people differently than they judge their own behaviors—even when the acts are the same! The Fundamental Attribution Error explains that it is normal for a person to assume, for example, that their own mistakes are due to situational factors—but the mistakes of other people are caused by the kind of people they are.

I’m having a bad day [situation] v. You are rude [personality].
I was graded unfairly v. She is a lazy student.
I was given too many jobs to do at the same time v. He is a disorganized person.
I was provoked v. You are aggressive.
I had a headache when you asked me v. He is such a hostile person!

My behaviors are driven by temporary situations outside my personality, while the same behaviors from others seem to be driven (to me) by on-going personality flaws.

When thinking this way about other people, a person is more like a personality psychologist, who decides that an act (or failure to act) stemmed from internal dispositions or traits. The diagnosis is quick—and it sticks.

The person is not ALWAYS wrong, of course—people do sometimes behave in certain ways because of the kind of people they are. However, a person is likely to discount the more pervasive influence of situations on another person’s behavior, even when a situational constraint is obvious. This attributional error is aggravated by the fact that situational influences (both historical and immediate) are frequently invisible, while the individual doing the act is perceptually prominent. The assault is more prominent than what preceded the assault. The crash is more prominent than the physical situation that framed it.

This me-other attributional error helps us understand how we all make sense of other people differently than we make sense of our own mistakes and behaviors. Researchers have consistently found that when people are instructed to see their own behaviors as “outside observers” or to see the behaviors of others “with myself in that role” the effect is reversed. People who switch roles become more empathetic about the behaviors of someone they were observing, applying more situational reasoning in their explanations for behaviors.

[Imaginatively insert cartoon here of woman talking to her cat (who has a struggling rodent in its paws): “Now how would you feel if the mouse did that to you?”]

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