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On Becoming More Perceptually Objective, Empathic and Accurate: Or Getting Your Head Out of the Clouds of Negative Assumptions and Premature Judgments

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

After an exhilarating five days in the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, the flight home quickly brought me down to earth. This trip also revealed how bias can easily cloud our thinking and judgment. Let me illustrate. I was sitting in a row with a young mother and her three-year old daughter, a real cutie. (We played a variety of games from peek-a-boo to patty cake.) Her two other children, no older than seven or eight, were sitting across the aisle. And after awhile the kids, not surprisingly, were getting restless. The three-year old even called out quietly to her mom to no avail. Where was mom? She was sleeping in her seat, in my mind, oblivious to her children. I couldn’t help but wonder about another too young mother who was being unresponsive if not irresponsible.

At some point though, I noticed her black t-shirt with the following inscription in yellow letters: “Iraqi Veteran: Fighting the War on Global Terrorism.” Curiosity began to replace judgment. I also began to hear that Twilight Zone theme music. While waiting at the Denver airport, just two hours before, I had had a phone conversation with a military wife and program planner from Fort Hood, Texas. She wanted a “Stress and Humor” workshop to help stateside families cope with the uncertainty and angst of having a spouse, parent and/or child heading to or already stationed in war torn Iraq.

When the young mother finally awoke, I commented on her shirt and the above-mentioned telephone conversation. Suddenly her eyes began to water. She agreed there was a real need for such a stress program. Alas, this woman more than proved the point. She explained that her husband, stepfather to her kids, had been killed in Iraq the week before. I immediately verbalized, “No wonder you need to sleep!” We then talked some about the importance of finding your own way to grieve when ready. Right now the young widow just wanted to scream but was afraid that if she started there would be no stopping. (And can anyone truly hear another’s screams in the depths of that dark and despairing black hole?) She will be leaving her kids with their father and his parents for a couple of weeks to get the needed emotional support from her family and friends.

The Basis of Judgment, Otherwise and Objective

But the focus of this essay is not the poignancy of loss or the power of grief but about my capacity for too quick and negative assumptions about the sleeping mother’s motives and seeming parental inattention. Actually, I had made a common perceptual mistake and misjudgment based on a social psychology framework called “Attribution Theory.” Attribution theory examines how a perceiver or judger assesses another person’s motives and behaviors. And a highlight of the model is the capacity for perceptual error based on whether an observer attributes a person’s motives or actions to situational forces or personality factors. Here’s an illustration. Let’s say a colleague at work (whom you don’t know well) has come in late two times in the last two weeks. It wouldn’t be surprising if you began to start wondering about their motives and competencies, e.g., are they lazy, disorganized, disenchanted with work, or just plain old passive-aggressive? However, if you were to come in late a couple of times, or were asked to speculate about reasons for your hypothetical lateness, research indicates you would likely quickly note, for example, the traffic conditions, needing to get a child to daycare, illness in the family, etc.

Can you see the bias? When explaining our behavior we first focus on situational or outside conditions affecting intentions and actions, thus providing a rationale or protective cover for any outcomes or consequences. In contrast, while observing others our initial predilection is to assess based on personality or motivational traits not on environmental constraints. An assessment focused on the individual alone, not seen in context, often makes it harder to be empathic or forgiving, or even just truly curious. (For example, “I wonder why she behaves that way?” is often more a disguised judgment than a question of genuine concern.) And this tendency to broadly, quickly or indiscriminately place personal disposition over situation when observing and evaluating others is called “Attributional Error.” And obviously, even the expert is susceptible!

Clearly, my assumption-like questions about this sleeping mother and the degree of parental responsiveness demonstrate attributional bias. If you had been sitting in my seat, what would your initial thought and judgment process have been? If you too were not perceptually objective, how might we reduce our one dimensional, too quick to negative judgment tendencies? Consider these “Three Steps for Achieving More “Fair and Balanced” Observations and Judgments”:

1. Challenge the Quick Judgment Tendency. We all are creatures of habit; it’s easy to fall into a prejudgment, especially if you’ve had a previous experience seemingly similar to the event or action being observed and evaluated, e.g., witnessed inattentive parenting. (Unless, of course, you can empathize by placing yourself both in the woman’s seat and in her larger picture. More in a moment.) So the key is to put on your mental-judgmental brake before going any further with the attributional process.

2. Shift From Assumptions and Judgments to Genuine Questions. Giving thought even to a simple question as “What factors might be contributing to this woman’s need to sleep?” surely would have raised some possibilities that would have tempered my negative assessment. In hindsight, I know I’d be exhausted having to travel with three kids.

3. Avoid All or None Thinking and Attribution. Even if it’s appropriate to raise some questions or concerns about a person’s motivational state or attitude, don’t stop there. Think hard or ask questions about the context in which the person is operating. Are there background barriers or bridges potentially impeding or facilitating normal or typical behavior and expected options or outcomes? In general, what are the environmental constraints and supports, social or cultural conditions or obligations, and mental status variables affecting the person’s mood, mindset or possible pathways?

Hopefully, this essay has dramatically demonstrated that when observing others’ actions or inactions rushing to judgment often leads to rash assessments. Don’t just get caught up in the figure. Take the time and effort to raise questions about and carefully examine the situational background. Words to help us not just be more observant but also more tolerant. And also a mindset to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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