My daughter used to play on a travel volleyball team. The first weekend tournament was exciting and exhausting, dismally gut-wrenching, but rich with spiritual and psychological lessons.
One of my daughter’s teammates was highly critical every time a member of their team made a mistake. We parents could not hear the negative perpetrator. It was, after all, very loud with forty games played simultaneously. Our ears rang the next day reminiscent of long-ago rock concerts, except instead of a pounding guitar riff, the culprit was thousands of whistles from the refs announcing various player errors. And our team made many.
Even though we parents couldn’t hear this girl’s verbal berating, from the sidelines we saw our team physically deteriorating – faces frowned, shoulders sagged, and hard-working girls gave up. “What was happening to them?” we questioned.
On the ride home, the girls in our carpool owned up to their individual mistakes, but it was fascinating to hear them connect how their team fell apart when they each got yelled at by their teammate, but then how they tightened up and worked as a team when the coach chastised them, even when it was heatedly. According to the girls, as their teammate yelled at each offender, moral continued to sink. At least she was an equal opportunity critic, they’d agreed. As we listened to our teenagers complain, we couldn’t help but offer our sage advice. Come on, we’re parents. It’s what we’re supposed to do, right?
The dad driving us home suggested the girls talk to the rest of the team to see if they felt the same way, and then write the coach an anonymous note detailing what was said in the team huddle every time they lost a point. The girls were not too excited about this idea. Off the court, they liked this girl. She had a salty wit that frequently kept their team in stitches.
I suggested my daughter talk one-on-one with this girl and tell her how it made her feel when she called her out on one of her mistakes. “After all, you are friends with her,” I reasoned. “Just explain that she had also made many mistakes, and instead of attacking her, you all went to center court and encouraged her. Tell her to leave the criticism to the coaches. That’s their job.”
My daughter rolled her eyes, something she has perfected since becoming a teen, and replied, “Mom, if you were a fifteen-year-old girl, you would not have any friends.”
And then I replied, “I was a fifteen-year-old girl who was treated like crap by my friends. I never stood up for myself, so they kept treating me like crap. I want better for you.”
Brainstorming about how to handle this sticky situation continued. The girls bantered about their teammate’s personality: “She can be so negative.” “She’s such a perfectionist but she sure isn’t perfect.” “She stresses out over the littlest thing.”
Wow, my social psychology class was being played out right in front of me. I was a non-traditional student who graduated with a psychology degree and never missed an opportunity to share psychological theory with my family, much to their dismay.
But I couldn’t resist. This situation was a prime example of the fundamental attribution error, which social psychologists use to explain our tendency to attribute someone’s behavior, whether we view it as good or bad, to someone’s personality rather than their circumstances. However, we tend to do the opposite when justifying our own behavior. This discrepancy is called the actor-observer bias.
From carpooling with this girl over the past year, I observed that she was very nervous about being late for practice and, sometimes, met us in her driveway as if we were late, even though we had plenty of time. She talked incessantly about the pressures of her all-gifted academic classes, and how she did hours of homework every night. She constantly compared herself to her overachieving siblings.
And every time she made a mistake during a game, she was her own worst critic. Her teammates realized this too, which is why they encouraged her with, “It’s okay, you’ll get it next time.”
Was it possible that this girl’s perfectionistic, critical personality was not dispositional but situational? When placed in the high-stress, competitive environment of sports and academics, the high standards set by her siblings and her parents ruled her behavior.
She wanted what we all want: love, acceptance, and freedom from judgment. The Bible addresses this topic frequently:
Judge not, and you will not be judged (Luke 6:37).
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7).
So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye (Matthew 7:3).
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion (Proverbs 18:2).
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4: 29).
So the next time you are faced with hurtful behavior from another, be aware that your offender may usually have a nice disposition but something external has brought out their unpleasant side.
Offer them grace, acceptance, and no judgment. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).
If the fundamental attribution error intrigues you, check out the original research.
Mentoring Opportunity: Are you guilty of attributing personality flaws to another’s behavior instead of the acknowledging the influence of the situation? Give examples and help others see how they may use the actor-observer bias in their relationships.