If you have a driver’s license and actually drive on public roads you have encountered for sure at least one situation when someone cut you off. Similarly while shopping in a supermarket when approaching slowly the cash register it has happened to you at least once that someone came in a hurry and just went in front of you at the cue. If these things have never happened to you (which makes you an outlier) for sure you were in a situation where a complete stranger had done something that has mildly affected you in a negative way. Someone cutting you off on a street or getting in front of you in line at a supermarket are annoying things, but not really bad.
Most likely your reaction towards the person who caused you this discomfort was something like “this guy is a jerk” or “he’s an idiot / ass h*le”. Your natural reaction is to blame the bad behavior on the person’s character or how psychologists like to call it – personality.
Now let’s make a thought exercise. Imagine that you are on your lunch break and right after you have a very important meeting with your boss (or a client) and it is absolutely vital that you are on time in the office. At the same time you need to get something from the supermarket and you went during the lunch break to buy it. You have 5 minutes to go through the cash register cue and get back to your office. You see that the cue is not long and you are happy that you’ll make it in time. As you approach the cash register you see a middle aged lady approaching the line with a shopping cart full of stuff. Naturally you step your pace and get in line just in front of her. Does this sound plausible? Most likely it does.
Did you do anything wrong? Of course not! The lady throws you an angry look and says simply “JERK”. Now you are surprised because (in your mind) you did nothing wrong. You were in a hurry to get to your very important meeting in time. Plus you know that the lady would have needed at least 15 minutes to place all her stuff on the counter, to complain to the cashier that prices have gone up, to search for her wallet, count the money, count the change twice and so on.
Taking a step back and looking to both situations – someone getting in front of YOU in the line and YOU getting in front of the lady with a lot of stuff in her shopping cart, we will realize that they are extremely similar. The only real difference is the perspective. In the first situation you would call the person who got in front of you a “jerk” but when you are called a “jerk” you are at least surprised. Are you really a “jerk”? For sure you don’t consider yourself a “jerk”…
What is going on here is two-folded. First, each and every one of us humans needs to feel good about ourselves. We need to live with ourselves and subsequently we need to have a good opinion about us. The bottom-line here is that jerks don’t think about themselves as jerks. Jerks think of themselves as normal or even nice people and “the others” are weird.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the person cutting in line is a jerk who has a good opinion about himself. The key idea is that we need to justify our actions. Of course everyone who has received a minimum of education knows that cutting in line is not exactly a nice gesture. At the same time we have a need to justify our actions and the person who got in front of the lady with a lot of stuff in her cart has to justify this action. The immediate and pertinent justification is that he was in a hurry to get back to the office in time for the very important meeting.
The second thing that is happening is that when you are the one doing the unpleasant deed, you become aware of other factors that have influenced your behavior apart from your personality. You KNOW that you are in a hurry. The lady in front of whom you got in line DOESN'T KNOW that you are in a hurry.
When judging someone else’s actions (or behaviors as psychologists like to say) humans infer that the action is a product of the personality (character) and ONLY of the personality of the person who does the action.
When judging our own actions, we become aware of other forces that have influenced our behavior such as contextual factors. What other forces and how they influence human behavior I will present later. The key learning of this post is that someone’s behavior is a product of more factors than just personality (or character).