Your friend is late, it’s his fault, isn’t it?

by Martin Jani

You are supposed to meet your friend at 6 pm. It’s 6:05 and your friend is still not coming. You have been standing there for almost 10 minutes. 5 more minutes, he’s nowhere around and it looks like it’s going to rain. He should at least text saying he’s not going to make it on time, right? What are your first thoughts going to be like? Are you getting upset? Or are you rather worried about your friend? Maybe your friend is irresponsible or careless, and he does things like that all the time, he’s just that kind of person, you know. On the other hand, something might have happened to your friend, something that he was unable to influence whatsoever. For example, what if he got stuck in traffic and his battery died? So, is he an asshole or a victim? In that case, is the actual asshole you?

credit: Nazzen at Flickr

credit: Nazzen at Flickr

So, as you see, the reason that he’s not coming may be due to his own decisions, actions, personality, or on the other hand, due to circumstances beyond his control. Fritz Heider, Austrian psychologist, was the first to describe this distinction to explain the actions of others and named it the attribution theory, because we are attributing causes to the behavior of people.(1958, The psychology of interpersonal relations) It can be either internal cause (he did it because of his twisted personality; she acts like this because she’s that kind of person) or external cause (he tried to do his best, but the odds were against him; she failed the exam because the professor didn’t like her).

Harold Kelly, American social psychologist, described some factors which guide us, while attributing causes to someone’s behavior. (1973, The processes of causal attribution. American Psychologist28(2)) For example, if you are always (consistency) falling asleep at professor Snake Hypnotizer’s lectures, while your fellow students (consensus) are having trouble paying attention as well. While you find other professors’ lectures entertaining (distinctive information), you will probably come to the conclusion that the professor Snake Hypnotizer is a hell of a boring teacher.


Now, let’s move on to the funny part. While we are kind of accurate with attribution, we as people are prone to making some serious mistakes. The fundamental attribution error, term coined by Lee Ross, is overestimating internal causes over external.(1977, The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social psychology10.)  We far more often presume that people act the way they do because of their motives than is actually true, and forgetting about other possible circumstances. In addition, we tend to overestimate internal causes in other peoples’ behavior, while attributing more external causes to our own behavior. In other words, while we see actions of others as internally motivated, we see our own actions as more influenced by random variables and things we couldn’t affect. Moreover, even while looking at ourselves recorded on camera, we tend to describe ourselves as more internally motivated, than we would do while describing our actions in real time. There are number of other kinds of biases people make while attributing causes of other peoples’ behavior, and the way you do it is also dependent on the culture you come from.

The reason for this might be that it is more satisfying to know something about the world and about others. We have evolved to attribute more internal causes to the behavior of others, so that the world is more predictable to us. If we can say that this person is responsible and this one is a bitch, it’s easier for us to know how to interact with them in the future, than if we had to consider all of the circumstances all the time. It’s kind of a simplification, but rather beneficial most of the time, it seems.

I guess this way of thinking is responsible for the existence of conspiracy theories.  Since we are designed to seek order in things around us, we are likely to see it even when it is actually not there.  We tend to perceive the world as a predictable place and this is also done through believing we know why people act the way they do. They are evil , they want to control us, they are stalking us.  Another example are the evil intentions we try to attribute to super rich families in the world. But most probably, their intentions of controlling the world through wealth are, according to the basic error of attribution, highly overestimated. Attributing intentions to the things that are happening around us to create the illusion that the world is a predictable place, is rather comforting. On the other hand, admitting that we don’t know what’s going on, would be less comforting. If you’d have to consider all factors influencing someone’s actions, you might soon have to admit it’s hard to tell what’s going on and this would make you frustrated and anxious.


Well, I don’t want you to be anxious. I just want you to hold on a bit and think next time your friend will be late for the meeting.

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