Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New world discovery: something that makes me want to be LESS profane

I've been doing lots of reading lately in an attempt to be a less contemptible person - striving to be a little happier in the process. One theory I've come across during this time has really given me pause in my own conversational styles and the way in which I view others. This concept is called the "Fundamental Attribution Error."1 This is a subconscious, psychological action in which we assume the behaviors of others are a direct explanation of their character. When this happens, we ignore the way in which others' environment or life circumstances can alter behavior. However as we self-reflect, the idea of what circumstances have affected our own behavior say, on a given day, very clearly explains which outside influences may have caused a skew in daily behavior.

A professor of social psychology at Stanford, Lee Ross, coined this term in a study and claimed that it was the cornerstone of social psychology. I've been really analyzing this and how it relates to my concept of others and how I treat others. I can think of 100 examples where at the post office, or at the grocery store, (or God help you, Disneyland) I mumbled insane profanities at others - calling them names - because of some small action I perceived to be inconsiderate or ignorant. And yet I've swept over my own bitchtastic behaviors when I've had a fight with my partner in the morning, or am outta money and have used it as an excuse to be caustic and frankly, hateful.

I've been testing out my theory, particularly while driving. For example, when a car is slow enough to cause disruption in the flow of traffic, I give it two minutes before making any declarations or spewing angry words. Here are a few examples of what I've found when I give it pause:
  • One was clearly a car full of drivers new to the country, struggling with a map. The driver had the wheel clenched in his hands, eyes glued to the road, leaning over with focus and attention. Had I honked or swerved I might have really caused an accident or harm to someone clearly trying very hard to get around safely.

  • Old people: my feelings on this vary because at some point I believe that you need to stop driving for the safe of yourself and others. And then one day I passed an older woman. She had faded auburn hair, funky glasses, and was also very focused on the road. As I passed her - I saw myself. How might I would feel at that age? I'm hard pressed to believe that just because of my age someone might keep me home-bound and if that meant I drove slower for safety, f*ck 'em that's fine with me. I went around her slowly - not really losing any time in my drive and eliminating the guilty feeling of wrongfully judging someone.

  • The hardest group so far: smoking / cell phone talking / who cares about seat belt parents with kids in the car. I hold them to a different standard - I wonder how they can be so reckless. Have I talked on the phone with kids in the car? Sure! But it was for good reasons. Maybe these parents too were rushing to the hospital, to a school event, to the next job, to elderly parents...and, maybe not. Maybe that's how they were taught and didn't have a mother as disciplined as mine.
I find that in considering the multitude of possible explanations I am no longer willing to rush to a negative judgment. Some might call it naive or corny, but its a tiny bit of hopefulness and innocence I'd buried such a long time ago. Really, what does it matter? "Does it radically alter my day?" I ask when someone cuts in front of me at the grocery store. I might get angry - but the root is say, my own mismanagement of that day's schedule. I'm impatient with the fast food cashier taking their time in my order, but more likely than not its because I overslept and was unable to make lunch at home.

I wonder if smarter, more religious people are able to extrapolate this from biblical scripture or have a more innate sense of these sociological idiosyncrasies. I see many people who attend religious services without any regard for people on a day-to-day, no patience to take that pause and give thought to those around them. I've also seen the most intelligent and analytical atheists perform extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity. It does not follow that labels explain complex human beings, nor do daily behaviors indicate fundamental character traits. I think what I'm taking from this is learning how to be quiet and reflective. Who the hell knew?

Then again, some people are just jerk faces who could use a swift kick, a Twinkie, and a time out. I might be that jerk face - more to come on my Time Out Travels.



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