One of the joys about psychology is seeing how applicable the concepts are to everyday life. For instance, attribution theory explores how we make causal explanations for behavior – that of our own as well as others. Let’s say you’re in a restaurant and the waitress is snippy and impatient as she takes your order. You wouldn’t be the first if you found yourself thinking some unkind thoughts along the lines of “She’s a mean, rude person.”
Now let’s turn things around. Suppose you’re the one who is in the server position. You’re impatient with the patrons and are in a hurry to leave the table but this time you get called out on your behavior. What would you say? Probably something along the lines of “I’m very sorry, I’m not usually like this. It’s been a crazy, hectic day and we’re understaffed.”
What just happened here is an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error, otherwise known as the actor-observer effect. When we look at others’ conduct (as observers) we typically make dispositional attributions. In other words, we judge their behaviors as representative of who they are as a person and assume those behaviors to be stable. When we explain the reasons for our own behavior (as actors), though, we tend to make situational attributions. This gives us a free pass and blames our conduct on environmental influences that are temporary and end up saying “I’m really a nice person! You just caught me at a difficult time.”
This all comes into play in relationships. During couples counseling one of the big differences between couples who are getting along from those who aren’t is the type of attributions they make about their partner’s unpleasant behaviors. The ones who are in love and act kindly typically provide the benefit of the doubt and explain their partner’s crabbiness or distance as situational. The ones who are in conflict and having problems in their relationship typically make the dispositional attribution and end up labeling their partner in a negative fashion (e.g., you’re a distant jerk who’s self-absorbed!). By contrast, the same distanced behaviors in a well functioning relationship might be attributed to an increased workload or that individual having a lot on their mind due to factors outside of themselves.
If you can remember this tendency during tense moments and provide your partner the benefit of the doubt (situational attribution) you’ll likely have a happier, healthier relationship.