The Jerk is Never Me

Comedian George Carlin once remarked, "Have your ever noticed? Anyone going slower than you is an idiot. Anyone going faster than you is a maniac."

When we observe someone else's behavior -- especially negative behavior -- we attribute it to their personality. But when we make a mistake ourselves, we are inclined to blame the situation.

Thus, when I'm driving fast, it's not because I'm a "maniac" but because I'm in a hurry. My fast driving is no reflection on my character, but rather the result of a rushed situation.

Similarly, if you accidentally break something, you tend to explain it as caused by the situation, e.g., that the object was slippery or that the handle came loose. On the other hand, if your child breaks something you are more apt to conclude that he's careless.

Here's another example. Suppose your spouse or roommate asked you to pick up some milk on the way home, and you forgot. You'd probably explain your forgetting in situational terms, e.g., that it was a busy day or that more important things were demanding your attention.

Now assume the tables were turned, and it was the other person who forgot to buy milk. Quite likely you would view this lapse as a reflection of their personality; e.g., that the other person is inconsiderate, insensitive or perhaps just plain stupid.

This discrepancy in how we explain our own actions, as opposed to those of others is called the "fundamental attribution error." It's always the other guy who's the jerk.

Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for several decades, and offer the following explanation: When we watch other people, we notice their behavior more than their situation. Conversely, when observing ourselves we are more attuned to the situation than to our own behavior.

Another reason for the bias in attribution is that it preserves our self-esteem. After all, if I accidentally break something, it is more desirable for me to look to the situation for an explanation, rather than to attribute it to a personal defect.

But this bias in attribution can have unpleasant consequences. When you look to circumstances to explain what went wrong, you are more apt to assign blame. This in turn fires up your "inner brat" ? that immature part of your psyche that whines and complains and tries to convince you that your misery is everyone else's fault. People with strong inner brats are never happy.

How do you know if you are making too many attribution errors? Ask yourself if any of the following apply to you:

-- You are in the habit of judging others

-- People describe you as critical

-- You make excuses for your own mistakes

-- You feel like a victim much of the time

-- When something goes wrong you blame other people

-- You walk around feeling angry or resentful

-- You have contempt for others, for no particular reason

If you recognize yourself in two or more points in the above list, your inner brat needs to be tamed. The first step is being aware of how your inner brat distorts reality, exaggerating other people's faults, while minimizing your own.

Once you make a concerted effort to view your own and other people's behavior in a more balanced way, you will be surprised to find that most of the "jerks" in your life have disappeared!

--- Copyright ©2005 Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2004) She is also a life coach. Visit for more information, and subscribe to her free, monthly Inner Brat Newsletter.

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