Flipping the Switch On Your Own Thinking

Psychologists refer to it as fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias.

It’s why when you cut someone off in traffic, it’s because you’re running late. But when they cut you off, they’re a jerk.

It’s a natural human phenomenon. When assessing our own behavior, we tend to take our circumstances into account. Yet when we’re judging someone else’s behavior, we’re more likely to discount their circumstances and attribute their actions solely to internal motivation.

If I snap at you or ignore your e-mail, it’s because I’m overloaded and stressed.

But if you snap at me, or ignore my e-mail, I’ll more likely jump to the conclusion that you’re acting out of malice or that you don’t care about me, this project, our marriage, the company, our church or whatever other subject we’re dealing with.

We have perfectly legitimate reasons for acting the way we do. Other people are just plain crazy.

But what if we flipped our thinking? What if instead of giving ourselves the benefit of circumstances, we gave that benefit to others? And what if instead of judging their internal motivation, we were willing to look at our own?

Here’s how it might play out in the traffic scenario. Someone cuts you off at the exit ramp. Instead of assuming that they’re a malicious jerk who doesn’t know how to drive, what would happen if you assumed that they were rushing to the hospital to meet the ambulance that had just pulled their child out of a grisly wreck?

Would you feel better or worse watching their taillights weave into your lane?

They’ve already cut you off. It’s really just a matter of choosing which response is going to make your own drive better.

Now apply the reverse logic to yourself. If you’re rushing to the hospital, you’re off the hook; feel free to cut me and anyone else off as you race up the exit ramp.

But what if you’re just simply running late. In the moment you’re tempted to jump in front of someone, what if you put your own stress and circumstances aside and asked, “How would this look from someone else’s perspective? Do I want to be the kind of person who cuts people off in traffic?”

If you’re like me, you’d probably have to admit that the reason you’re late is because you didn’t leave early enough, you never allow enough time for traffic, and your tendency to cram too many things into every available moment is causing you and everyone around you tons of stress and may even wind up killing someone on the highway if you can’t learn how to plan your time better.

In the curse-the-other-guy-make-excuses-for-yourself scenario, you drive away angry, and you remain completely oblivious about your own behavior. But when you flip it, giving others the benefit of the doubt and looking at your own internal motivation, you wind up happier, and you also open up the opportunity to change.

False attribution error and self-serving bias may sound like fancy psych terms. But they play out in everyday in relationships, work and world affairs. (The wars we start are justified; other people are evil.)

If we can learn to flip our thinking about the guy who cuts us off in traffic, perhaps we can tackle even more challenging problems.

Granting others the grace you give yourself isn’t letting them off the hook. It just means taking responsibility for the one person whose mind you do control – yours.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. The founder and principal of McLeod & More, Inc, she specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.