I was headed to the gym after work one day last week. As I was making the right-hand turn onto one of the main thoroughfares through my part of the city, the lady to my right and just a smidge behind me honked. A second or two later, I realized she was honking at me. She thought I had cut her off.
I was indignant. Cut her off? Me? Surely she was the one in error, not following her own  turn lane into the far right lane of the road we were entering. She must be a horrible driver, I decided, thinking of her flagrant traffic violation. And then to honk at me?
I was convinced. I was right, and she is just a terrible person.
A day or two later, I was downtown visiting the weekly farmers’ market, and as I was trying to make my way home, I got caught in the redirected traffic of police barricades and one-way streets.

At least I thought they were one-way streets. Thinking I was on a one-way street turning left onto another one way street, I veered over into the far left lane. As I was waiting for the light to turn, another car began to turn onto the street I was on, in the opposite direction of me, in the lane I was in.
Apparently, I was on a two-way street going the wrong way in the wrong lane. Since there were no cars behind me, I quickly backed up, and moved over into the correct lane. Innocent mistake, I though to myself. Any conscientious driver could have done the same thing under the circumstances.
Later it dawned on me. If I had made an innocent mistake driving, perhaps the woman from the other day had made one, too. Or maybe it wasn’t even her mistake. And the honking? Could she have been using her horn for its intended purpose – to try to avoid a collision?
Why was I so quick to excuse my own behavior as an exception and so quick to accuse the other woman of weak moral character?
Psychologists would say that I am making a fundamental attribution error, which basically means I tend to consider my own behavior in context, or situationally, but I look at others’ behavior  as a mark of their character, or dispositionally.
According to Psychologist Luke Conway of the University of Montana, this same confusion of context versus character is also why people think “compromise” is a dirty word in politics.
NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam summarizes Conway’s theory this way:

He’s basically saying that in the United States we tend to see human behavior as driven by individuals. So psychologists have this term, they call it the fundamental attribution error. And the fundamental attribution error says when I do something, when I look at my own behavior, I tend to see it in context. So I think of myself as being a safe driver, but if I’m driving fast today, it’s because I’m running late for an appointment. But when I look at another person driving quickly, I say this person is a reckless driver, so I see it as being dispositional. And what Conway is suggesting is that Americans may have a tendency to see human behavior as more disposition or driven by the individual as opposed to driven by the context.

It’s a wonderful theory, really. After hearing it, I have thought repeatedly about all the ways I look at the behavior of other people and make assumptions about their character, though excusing myself a hundred times for the same flaws. The theory is airtight, really.
I’d say that fundamental error attribution has been around as long as there were two people, one looking at the apple in his hand and saying, “I’m a good person who had to bend a little, but that woman you gave me, she’s just plain evil. And don’t even get me started about that serpent.” And the other? She was thinking the same thing: “Normally, I would never have eaten the fruit. But men, you can’t trust ’em!”
Jesus turned fundamental error attribution on its head by talking about splinters and logs. Not only do we see others’ minor actions as major flaws in character, we don’t even see our major behaviors as problems at all. We practically knock people over with the logs in our own eyes trying to get to their tiny little splinters.
On the way back from the gym that night after the honking incident, I stopped on a red light at the same intersection, only this time I was going in the opposite direction. As a result, I had a view of all the traffic making that same right-hand turn. This is my chance to exonerate myself, I thought. I observed every car turning, just waiting to see them do exactly what I did and NOT get honked at.
As each car turned, some followed the predictable pattern that I expected the other car should have followed – far right lane turning into far right lane. But not one car stayed in the lane as I had done. Everyone of them in the second right lane swung out wide, giving the cars in the far right lane plenty of room to complete the turn.
Maybe I did cut her off, I considered sheepishly. Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.
Too bad I didn’t think of that earlier.
Photo by Mike Poresky, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.