Career & Work Life Matters, ISSN 2150-6299, Vol 4, no. 4
Why We Misinterpret Others
|As a professional, you are continually evaluating information and making judgments, often without much conscious attention to the process. By understanding some of the systematic biases in how we interpret the behavior of others, you can gain new insight, be more objective, and reduce misinterpretations.|
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Does it Make Sense?
As human beings we are continually trying to make sense of our environment. This is often done quickly and with information that is imperfect, not relevant or otherwise limited. From this basis, we choose which information to focus on, we organize it, we interpret it. Sometimes the process is deliberate, but much of the time it occurs outside of our awareness.
Evaluating information is integral to your work as a professional. You make choices and decisions about projects. You make judgments about people. You contribute to meetings and give feedback to colleagues. But how do you process the information available to you?
Below are 4 inter-related criteria that researchers have found that we typically use to make sense of social situations. More often than not our judgments are almost instantaneous. The next time you are in a meeting trying to understand a team member’s behavior, notice if you are applying the criteria below.
|1. STABILITY||2. SPECIFICITY|
|How frequently does this person behave like this?||In which type of contexts do I observe this behavior?|
|3. LOCUS||4. RESPONSIBILITY|
|Am I attributing this to an internal factor (something to do with the person) or an external factor (something to do with the situation)?||Is this behavior within the person’s control or outside of their control?|
Two Common Biases in Social Situations
According to social psychology research we have systematic biases in how we process social information. One of the most common biases is the fundamental attribution error.
The essence of the fundamental attribution error is that we tend to use different types of attributions when explaining our own behavior and that of others. Specifically, we are more likely to attribute what others do to internal factors, but give more credence to external factors when explaining our own behavior. This bias has important implications for communication and relationships in the workplace. We are likely to respond differently when we conclude than an individual is behaving in a particular way because that is “just how they are.”
How to Be a Better Judge of Behavior
By being aware of how systematic perceptual biases can lead to misinterpretation, you have a framework for checking your assumptions. Ask whether or not the fundamental attribution error is preventing you from being objective in your assessment of what you observe.
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