Why this? why now?

Of all the questions ever asked, the most puzzling one would probably be “Why do people behave the way they do?”. Day in and day out we find ourselves mulling over remarks made by those around

Published: 01st February 2012 11:29 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:47 PM   |  A+A-


Illustration: Amit Bandre

Of all the questions ever asked, the most puzzling one would probably be “Why do people behave the way they do?”. Day in and day out we find ourselves mulling over remarks made by those around us and making judgements about their behaviour in an attempt to understand our social world. Let’s say that you judged your classmate as being lazy because he has been coming late to class every morning. What you have just done is engaged in a process called attribution where you have tried to reason out your classmate’s tardiness by blaming it on a personal quality of laziness. When a student confesses to hating a subject, he may attribute this to an inadequate teacher which is an external factor that helps one excuse personal responsibility towards learning. Attribution is a crucial process by which we attempt to explain our own and others’ behaviour so that we feel comfortable living our social life.

It is very important in determining how we act in a particular situation. In the previous example, you may be critical towards your classmate because you think he is lazy. You may understand his situation if you take into consideration his unpunctual autorickshaw driver who drops him at school late every day.

There are several styles of attribution which we adopt in various situations. Suppose you were rude to your friend for no apparent reason. You may apologise profusely to her saying you were in a lousy mood because your sister had torn your homework which took three long hours to complete. By attributing your rudeness to external factors, you attempt to reduce blame on yourself. Imagine you were at the receiving end of your friend’s temper instead. You may not attribute it so readily to external events that may have forced her to shout at you and may simply label her a ‘hothead’. This negative attribution of behaviour to your friend’s personality leads to bitterness and makes forgiving more difficult than if you had dismissed her behaviour as caused by external factors, like you did your own.

Imagine a new student has arrived in your class. He likes to crack poor jokes and none of your classmates enjoys them. In such a situation, where the majority does not see eye to eye with the new boy, you are likely to attribute his silly behaviour to his personal characteristics of  immaturity and stupidity. Consider another situation in which the whole class liked a particular movie and the new boy does not like many movies but really enjoyed this one, you are more likely to attribute his enjoyment of the movie to the movie as opposed to his personal characteristics of intelligence. Our attributions thus depend on the view of the majority and the degree of likeness between an individual and the larger group, making it pertinent that we stay fair while appraising others’ behaviour.

We tend to commit many errors while attributing. One of the common errors is to attribute others’ negative behaviour to internal factors while underestimating situational factors. We tend to attribute positive outcome to our personal characteristics and negative outcomes to external factors. If you have ever boasted about your ‘A’ and your obvious intelligence to friends and indignantly retorted to your mom that half the class failed the test because the teacher is unfair while trying to explain away your ‘C’, you know what this error is about. The most unfortunate error is when we attribute our failures to ourselves and our successes to situations. Such attribution can harm our self-esteem and make us  depressed.

Keep an open mind about others’ situations before judging. We would definitely like others to show us the same consideration, would we not?

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