Episode 20: False Attribution Error
This is Episode 20.
When we create our inner story, the narrative account of our actions, we often excuse our transgressions. We blame our trespasses on situations, on other people, or even on God. We craft a narrative that protects our self-image. In the inner story we author, we still wear the “white hat.”
However, when another person in our story crosses the line, we attribute their behavior to their bad character, their nasty disposition, or their evil motives. In the overall dramatic script, we attribute evil intentions to another party. They wear the “black hat.”
For example, if we serve on the highway and cut off another car, we attribute our behavior to a pothole or to an errant driver we were forced to avoid. Or we may claim in our defense that, “To err is human.”
But, if another driver swerves in front of us, we attribute negative qualities to their character: “They’re out to kill us. They’re dangerous and should not be on the road. They could care less if they harm others.”
During a conflict, we usually find parties put forth such false attributions. Rarely have they had a chance to really listen to one another. They have not shared their views of the events that transpired. They do not know “why the other guy did what he did.”
In order to craft a complete narrative they must make up the inner story of the other “character” in the drama. They must use creative license — which leads to false attributions. In the overall scripted drama they cast the other party as the villain with undesirable intentions.
Perhaps you recall a time when you took creative license and wrote up an inner story for the other person — to fill out your own drama. Perhaps, without thinking, you attributed to them false attributes. You wrote a story which protected your self-image but which did not fit entirely with reality. Do not feel bad. This is very common. But it is something a peacemaker needs to remedy.
When the parties mediate and seek to reconcile their differences, they must listen carefully to each other’s story. In mediation each party shares their inner story and provides the information their opponent was missing. Once parties have the missing information, they must rewrite the script without its false attributions.
Once each party possesses a more accurate and complete narrative of the events that led to conflict, they are better able to co-author a story that describes the future. They enter into a collaborative effort to find a shared path forward.
In your personal reflection recall times when you wrote the inner story for another person — and then discovered your story was flawed. What problems arose that might have been avoided if you had not engaged in false attribution? In retrospect, what part of the other person’s story was missing that caused you to have to complete your narrative with false attributions?
As you continue to reflect, consider how you will go about discovering the missing elements that make up another person’s inner story. How will you help others tell their story? How will you help them reveal their motives and intentions?
Perhaps the most significant story is each person’s narrative of their personal spiritual journey, their pilgrimage to salvation. Perhaps a key to peacemaking is encouraging the sharing of this deepest of all inner narratives. When we listen to this deepest of all narratives we no longer have to guess about the identity, the motives, the intentions of the other person. We begin to know them as they are. This is a key factor in bringing about peace.