When we are faced with an impatient waitress in a diner, are we faced with a behavior that comes solely from her personality or a behavior that comes from the situation? Let’s say you didn’t know what to order, and the waitress taps her foot and says, “I don’t have all day,” in a very irritated manner. Would you say she just had a bad attitude? Or would you consider the kind of situation she might be in? Oftentimes we judge others based on their personalities that we often forget how strong situations could influence a person’s behavior.
The waitress could have been awake all night due to screaming babies and late night shifts in two other jobs where she had to tolerate drunken teenagers and adults. She could have had a hard time maintaining the house and her kids all by herself since she just recently went through a divorce, which left her to be the only breadwinner of the family. When we think of all this, suddenly, her reaction of irritation makes sense to us. Who hasn’t been cranky after sleeping for only an hour the entire day? Our behaviors play out based on our situations, but we tend to judge people based on their personalities. This mistake is called the Fundamental Attribution Error or the Correspondence Bias, a topic I learned in my Social Psychology class. I learned that we overestimate the extent to which people’s behavior is due to internal dispositional factors and underestimate the role of situational factors.
Next time someone snaps at you for the smallest things, try not taking it to heart and imagine what he or she could be going through. The nicest people can always snap, and the meanest people can always help. It depends on our situation. We may have just gone to Church or have visited the funeral, it would be more likely that you would visit a friend who is stuck in the hospital. We may have just watched Harry Potter and played soccer and you immediately thought about joining the Quidditch team.
Personalities play roles, but situational circumstances influence our behaviors the most. So the next time you judge, think of the situation first because a lot of our actions are based on that.
The problem of having preconceived notions of people usually turn out to be “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Self-fulfilling prophecies occur when your preconceived notions turn into reality. It’s not that your notions were correct, but the way you acted towards the person made them act a certain way (and mind you that this is done unconsciously by all of us). Here are the steps to a self-fulfilling prophecy:
- Forming an Expectancy – we categorize people according to their gender, ethnicity, age, etc. and act what we think of them
- Perceptual Confirmation – we see what we expect to see
- Behavioral Confirmation – our expectations lead us to behave in such a way that the target unintentionally confirms our expectations
A lot of studies have been done with teachers in elementary schools. One study gave a class a test, and the researchers randomly selected ‘bloomers,’ who were students, that would become brilliant if they were just given a little nudge. The results were shown to the teachers. After a year passed, the class was given an IQ test, and the bloomers received scores that were above average. The way teachers treated these students affected how they performed in class, and thus a “self-fulfilling prophecy” occurred.
Next time you encounter a social group, which you don’t particularly like, try striking up a conversation with one of the members and act as if they are the friendliest person you have ever met. Because let’s face it, you get what you give.