Discover more from Prompted
Outsmarting The Fundamental Error
Putting the life we want on the path of least resistance.
Greetings - I hope you’re enjoying your Sunday afternoon.
This week we’re taking a closer look at how our environment and circumstances impact our actions. I hope what’s below is helpful, and as always, thanks for reading!
Outsmarting The Fundamental Error
Man is largely a creature of habit, and many of his activities are more or less automatic reflexes from the stimuli of his environment.
G. Stanley Hall
As confident as humans can be, we always need to take our thoughts and assumptions with a grain of salt. What we experience is not objective reality but a distorted view of the world from one perspective.
It should only take a few optical illusions or tricky riddles to realize we have a fragile perception of reality. This is especially true with our assumptions and perceptions of someone’s character.
The phenomenon is so common that we have a name for it, the Fundamental Attribution Error. According to Harvard Business School, Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) refers to an individual's tendency to attribute actions to character or personality instead of situational factors. Said another way, circumstances override character.
For example, if we observe someone in a fit of rage, we assume they’re an angry person with a short temper instead of considering that they may have just been fired or taken advantage of.
There are two things we can take away after understanding FAE.
First, we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt. The jerk driving like a maniac is likely late for a meeting. The bad listener likely has something else on their mind. The thief likely had their back up against the wall. Good people do bad things in poor circumstances.
Second, we’re just as vulnerable to this error when thinking about ourselves as we are when thinking about other people. In the context of trying to become a bit better each day, these assumptions about our character hold us back.
Sometimes we doubt our character and think we lack the willpower, discipline, or motivation to do difficult things, overcome challenges, and remain consistent in the face of resistance.
Other times we’re overconfident in our character and think we’ll be disciplined and execute the plans we’ve created for ourselves no matter what.
In both cases, we’ve made the fundamental error of overlooking our circumstances. It doesn’t matter if we’re drowning in doubt or brimming with discipline when it comes time to do the work.
When the alarm goes off, and the sun is still deep below the horizon, who will have a better chance of doing the work they laid out for themselves; someone drowning in doubt who got 8 hours of sleep, put their alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, and laid out a clear plan for themselves or someone brimming with confidence who was out late, doesn’t have an alarm set, and doesn’t have a plan for their morning?
Creating the right circumstances can override doubt, distraction, and laziness, but our character cannot override poor circumstances. Even the world’s fastest swimmer will lose a race to an amateur if the amateur swims downriver and the professional swims upriver.
If we hope to become a bit better each day and continually move forward, we should focus on creating conditions that allow us to swim downstream instead of training ourselves to be strong enough to swim upstream.
If we focus on situational factors instead of character, we can create circumstances such that the path of least resistance is filled with worthwhile pursuits and meaningful work instead of missed opportunities and regret.
Prompted is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
How can you create the conditions to make your ideal day fall on the path of least resistance?
What aspects of your current environment are pulling you in the wrong direction?
Are there any circumstances that you can’t change? How can you manage to work with or around these?
Gladwell talks about FAE in The Tipping Point when he explains the broken windows theory in relation to NYC’s unprecedented drop in crime in the 90s.
An explanation of FAE from the folks over at Harvard.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.