There is a phenomenon described in social psychology as the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency of people to attribute others’ misbehavior to their dispositions (“That guy must be a jerk”) while chalking up their own misdeeds to the situation (“It was a very stressful day”). In simpler terms, this is the universal human tendency to deal gently with ourselves but hold others to strict account.
This variable scale of responsibility is a defense mechanism, and it is totally self-serving. We use it to protect ourselves from the knowledge of how we often treat other people shabbily, how we neglect the good we ought to do and go ahead with the bad things that come so naturally. Coming to terms with our sin is enormously unpleasant. Even worse, leveling with ourselves involves accepting our responsibility to change for the better. Without admitting as much, of course, many of us reduce our moral obligations administratively by thinking of high moral standards as “fanaticism” and by reminding ourselves that no one is perfect. All this leads smoothly into a customized moral structure, and we are then free to set about merely observing the “important” rules. Witness the ease with which our evaluations fall victim to our desire for comfort and convenience.
And what of our tendency to downgrade others? It isn’t as though most of us want to see others in a negative light, precisely. It’s just that their lowness gives us comparative glory. Moreover, thinking of ourselves more highly than the record warrants tends to make us more sensitive to the faults of others and makes it easier to condemn their shortcomings from an imagined high ground. If only we saw our own defects more clearly, we would almost certainly be more patient with the other person’s faults.
When I was in college I had a Statistics professor who presented a UC Berkeley study to the class. The study examined the self-confessed dispositions of more than 800 people, every one of whom rated himself as “better than average” at working with others. Of course, it is statistically impossible for more than half of a sample group to be “greater than average” in any category. The term “average” is a central tendency that is calculated by combining all the scores. Professor Petraitis said the study was his personal favorite. He laughed when he told us, “No one thinks they’re a schmuck.”
I have often thought that most human conflicts arise from believing the worst about others. Reactions are based more often on perceived motives than on observed behavior. No doubt there are plenty of outright offenses and malicious words tossed around, but I believe many conflicts would vanish if we could really know the intentions of others and what manner of inward and outward circumstances were involved in a given altercation. But with limited information and a natural tendency to believe we’re “better than average,” we find it difficult not to make assumptions about others and act accordingly. Meanwhile, the well-worn tapes play repeatedly in our heads, telling us we’re good guys in a world overrun by cretins.
Another self-serving distortion is what social psychologists call In-Group/Out-Group Bias (us and them). Once separate groups are created in our minds, it is only natural to make them perpetrators and us victims. This arrangement, again, protects our illusion of innocence and provides people to blame for all the social ills we rail against. It pits employees against their bosses, civilians against policemen, poor against rich, citizens against bureaucrats and government officials. Wherever we find disparities in status, power or wealth (in fact, all differences), this us-and-them thinking pops up.
This game gets even worse where racial differences are involved. Once, years ago, I was at the gym with a friend when we found ourselves sharing the treadmill area with a youngish black man. At one point, my friend leaned over and told me quietly, “He’s got an attitude. You can tell.” I looked at the guy and wondered how accurate the perception was. After my friend had moved into a different area, I went up to the guy and greeted him in a friendly manner just to see what would happen. I got a genuinely warm response, and I was mystified at how completely my friend had been misled.
It is through these kinds of assumptions that interpersonal slights, suspicions and even faint impressions morph into injuries and broken relationships. The one who imagines himself to be a victim really becomes one, then feels justified in dispensing the same coin to others. It is the devil’s gift that keeps on giving. All the while, we tell ourselves it’s not our fault because we acted in self-defense.
It never ceases to amaze me how perfectly the Word of God cuts through all our rationalization and denial. Solomon exhorts us: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Prov. 12:16). How quickly a unilateral conflict dissolves! When a reflexive barb reveals no ill intent and no desire to spar, the game is canceled. Likewise, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Paul instructs, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). The one who wants to be at peace with others will usually get his wish, even if he has to ignore a few hits along the way. Such is the proper posture of the follower of Christ, who told us, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44, 45).
Let the one who wants peace first give it. When we make conciliation our first priority and give others the benefit of the doubt, we will discover an abundance of peace lovers coming out of the woodwork (though it may take a bit of work to coax them out). Most of them are just waiting for the sturdy soul who displays goodwill through forbearance.