The context is decisive (aka Fundamental Attribution Error)

Last week I wrote about erring on the side of generosity … and choosing the interpretation that someone was a good person have a crappy day, rather than a crappy person. There is a bit of science that backs this up – or at least explains the phenomenon. In their awesome book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath say that we are frequently blind to the power of situations – the context. They quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross, who calls this the “Fundamental Attribution Error” – our inclination to attribute people’s behaviour to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in. And there are lots of studies that demonstrate this trait we have.

Last week I had a couple of personal experiences that really brought that home for me. On Monday Scarlett managed to cunningly lock herself in the car. She was playing with the keys after Trish put her in her baby capsule, and when Trish was walking around to get in, she put the clicker in her mouth and locked Trish out. Not a great scenario, baby locked in the car in the sun, warm day, and no obvious way to get her out. (It all ended well, a short time later – well before I arrived - the firemen smashed the car window and rescued her).

I got the call from Trish when it happened, and I was at home with the spare key forty minutes drive away. I jumped in the car, and drove there fast. I was weaving in and out of traffic, breaking speed limits … I even turned right as soon the light went green in front of all the oncoming traffic (and took a certain guilty pleasure from it, I must admit).

The very next day I was dropping a couple of glass cabinet doors off for my mate, and had them in the boot. I was inching over speed humps, crawling around corners, and making sure the whole way that the glass doors arrived in one piece.

If you were driving behind me on the Monday, you would have thought I was a complete hoon as I disappeared into the distance (or cut you off). The next day you would have been impatiently waiting for a chance to pass me thinking that your grandmother drives faster. But it was the same person – just the context had changed.

The broader lesson from this is that if you want someone to perform better, consider how you can change the context, the situation, rather than trying to change them (it’s much easier). And if the person you want to perform better is you, so much the better.

Love to hear your thoughts – what’s your experience of the context being decisive? You can leave your thoughts below.