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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Perspective: We should all reconsider our first impressions

In my first semester, I sent numerous texts to my friend over several days but received no reply. My response quickly turned to frustration. I thought she was being a bad friend. How long does it take to send a simple text? The next week, I received a reply: She had been in the hospital for the past three days.

My experience resorted to reflection on my past poor judgments. Before I enrolled in a psychology course at GW, I would have never considered myself to be necessarily judgy. No one truly wants to identify as overcritical, but I learned that this characteristic is deeply rooted in our human nature.

In my snap judgments, I was overcome with what psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error. The way we initially perceive people — called person perceptions — is how humans interpret the people around them. These perceptions come in the form of internal and external attributes and provide explanations for other’s behaviors. Yet these initial perceptions can often be misleading; humans tend to blame the individual for their actions and pay little attention to uncontrollable environmental factors.

People make attributions to characterize day-to-day experiences. In other words, we collect information and use it to infer the characteristics of a person or our environment. An internal attribution will place weight on personal characteristics, like a person’s physical traits or abilities, whereas external attributions focus on one’s situational experiences that are out of their control, like environmental or social influences.

My newfound vocabulary hit home at the beginning of this semester. After pleading with professors to allow me into their already packed classes, I struck luck with a kindhearted English professor. He gladly signed my registration form, securing my seat in the class. Receiving confirmation I was off the waitlist, I eagerly walked to class, excited for what seemed to be an enthralling course. When I finally arrived, I was miffed that the professor did not show up for the class.

Being at an early time, the class turned to mutiny. Students immediately called the professor out, claiming he could have sent an email so that we didn’t have to wake up at 8 a.m. My classmates even debated the “15-minute rule,” arguing over how long they were required to stay before the teacher showed up. Despite my fondness for the teacher, I found myself blaming him as well since I had pressing questions for the class.

Later in the week, the class received an email explaining that the professor had passed away.

My classmates and I used internal attributions, blaming the professor and criticizing his choices instead of considering what else could have explained his absence. I chose to view the professor as a one-dimensional character: a teacher and an employee instead of an individual. I chose not to consider situational factors that could be affecting his situation.

In my class’ case, it would have been important to use these lessons to both our own and our professor’s advantage. While no one will ever truly know what’s going on behind the scenes, humans all hold the capability to judge each other with honesty and empathy. It is the responsibility of one with this knowledge to constantly be mindful. Choosing between externally and internally judging others’ behaviors can be the difference between belittling someone and showing compassion.

We all make these attributions in our daily lives, whether it’s becoming enraged while walking behind a slow walker or having road rage at a swerving car. At times like these, it is helpful to keep the difference between personal and situational attributes in mind. After all, the slow-walker may just be sick or the driver could be preoccupied with an emergency.

Judgment is human nature. The human brain is constantly asking questions in order to perceive environments. It is how we decide to label the environment that makes a difference.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to automatically exaggerate personal characteristics and pay little attention to external factors. It is a complex way of saying something relatively simple; how we frame our experiences says a lot about how we feel about them.

It’s important to remember these lessons when reevaluating daily mishaps and troubles. Give others the benefit of the doubt when someone makes a mistake instead of holding them accountable.

So before you shout colorful profanities at the swerving car next to you, consider reframing your words with the attribution theory in mind. When asking yourself who to blame, consider both sides of the story.

Madie Turley, a first-year, is an opinions writer.

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