How to stop labeling people: 6 ways to prevent the Fundamental Attribution Error

We’re quick to label people. One a bit too harsh review of your code, and you’ll see the reviewer as narrow-minded and ill-willed from now on. One unfortunate comment on a meeting and you’ll consider your colleague as adversarial and non-collaborative for years. One poorly written requirement and you’ll think of a stakeholder as inherently careless or stupid.

Such labels are hard to erase and lead to a poisonous atmosphere. But does it have to be this way? Why do we form these negative opinions? And, more important, how to avoid it?

Why do we label people? A Fundamental Attribution Error.

A behavior is a product of your character and your context.

I bet you’re a good driver. But is your driving style identical every single time? What about when you’re sleepy? Or angry? Or late to the airport? Or when you drive with a swollen, sprained ankle? Your observable behavior depends not only on your personal traits but also on the situation you’re in.

You know your context and your typical behavior, so you justify yourself.

You’ve just run through a crossing at the beginning of the red light. You dislike aggressive driving and normally would never do it, but you have a sprained ankle and pushing hard on the brakes would have hurt like hell. You’d normally call it irresponsible to drive with a swollen ankle, but it’s already getting dark, and you’re only 15 minutes from home. It’s not your fault. Circumstances forced you to do it – only this single time!

You don’t know other person’s context so you attribute his behavior solely to his character.

A week later you see another driver running through the red light. “What a jerk” – you think. “Some people just don’t know how to drive. They should never give him a driving license”. You have just committed a Fundamental Attribution Error – judged the other person through a lens of your limited knowledge of his context.

How to stop labeling people?

In short: remember that a single behavior doesn’t represent one’s character and try to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Some things to consider:

  1. Watch out for generalizations.
    Try to catch yourself saying (or thinking) phrases like “always”, “never”, “he is” etc. Try to replace them with “he did”, “in this situation”, “this time” and so on – and consider how this changes your perception of the other person.

  2. Assume the good will of the other person.
    People seldom act with a cold, malicious premeditation. Usually, they have good intentions or, in the worst case, are just careless. Try to think of the other person’s behavior as of good intentions that backfired – does it change the label you was about to attach to him?

  3. Invent excuses for the other person.
    Take a moment to imagine potential justifications for the other person’s behavior. They may even be a bit over-the-top (“he drove through the red light because he just remembered he left the water tap open”); the goal of this mental exercise is to remind yourself that there are many other potential reasons for one’s actions than his innate character traits.

  4. Look for systemic causes.
    Consider if there are any external factors that might have caused the other person’s behavior. Especially, notice if more people act in a similar way – it is much more probable that some common, systemic conditions affect people’s behavior than that they all share similar, negative character traits.

    (For more about looking for systemic causes check out this post)

  5. Think how you’d behave in a similar situation.
    Try to remember (or imagine) yourself in a similar situation. Would an external observer approve of your behavior? How could he label you considering only this single situation? Would you agree with this label? Why not? What was the reason of your actions?

  6. Just ask the other person about his behavior.
    Nobody has better insight into one’s context than this person himself. So why rely on your imagination instead of the best-informed source? Just remember not to sound adversarial, to avoid judgment, and to ask about the particular behavior (“what was the reason of you running through the red light?” vs “why are you such an aggressive driver?”).

Take the first step.

Labeling people is a deeply ingrained reflex. It happens unconsciously. Thus, the first step to avoid it is raising your self-awareness. If you can catch yourself making a label, you’ve already won half of the battle. At first, it’ll require a conscious effort. But don’t give up – it’ll soon become a habit. Potentially a life-changing one.

Share your thoughts!

If you have given any of the above techniques a try, or can think of any other ones, I’d love to hear from you! Don’t hesitate to drop me a comment!


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