Several factors influence our thoughts and behaviors, and many of them are outside our awareness and control. You can think of the brain as a dual processor consisting of a logical conscious system and a non-conscious reflexive one. The Logical brain is intentional, voluntary, and within our awareness. It makes us feel in control, but it requires time and effort. On the other hand, the reflexive brain is involuntary, outside our awareness, irrational, and reactionary. It is typically recruited because it is fast and effortless.
To our dismay, the reflexive brain involuntarily spews mental computations such as making judgments about people’s race, sex and religious affiliation.
Most of us have been taught this principle in social etiquette 101: DO NOT JUDGE PEOPLE. We all know the clichés “Don’t judge the book by its cover”. Schools, work and many homes have encouraged their members to be cordial to everyone. But, is it possible to make no judgments? Imagine if I asked you to stare at the sentence below in parentheses without reading it, just stare at it.
It is impossible to look at words and not read them, even if you try really hard. Similarly, it is impossible to meet someone and make zero internal judgments about them. Judgments are expectations based on pre-programmed mindsets or scripts, and yes when it comes to race we call them stereotypes.
Of course, many judgments are benign, but others can be cancerous. Most of us can fill out questionnaires on attitudes toward others, and pass as non-racist or non-sexist with flying colors. But, you know who is filling them out? Your logical brain is! However, it is your reflexive brain that is frequently in control of your behaviors, especially if you have to make fast decisions or if you don’t want to exert too much cognitive effort.
There are two types of attributions we make about others’ behavior:
When we make situational attributions, we believe their behavior is due to something in their situation: For example, our coworker might have been short with us, because s/he is tired or overworked.
Personality attributions are more about the person’s character. When we make these attributions, we believe the behavior is due to the person’s personality. Assuming that same coworker who was short with us is impatient or unkind is making a personal attribution.
Personality attributions are more enduring and long-lasting. Being impatient or unkind is a consistent way of being, compared to being tired or overworked, which may be temporary.
When I’m walking my dogs around the neighborhood, I wave and say hi to my neighbors who are in their yards or driving by. I want to create a friendly neighborhood environment, so I do this as much as I can. Occasionally I get no response from my neighbors. I could make personality attributions about them and think they are mean or bad people who are not friendly due to their personality, or I could give them the benefit of the doubt and think about situational reasons they might not wave back at me. Perhaps they are distracted because they just got a phone call from their mom and learned she is not doing well. Maybe they are stressed at work and therefore distracted at home. Maybe they have earbuds in and literally did not hear me say hello. Making situational attributions instead of personal ones about my neighbors makes me feel better since I do not think my neighbors are jerks, and makes my future communication with them better for the same reason.
Research has found that people tend to overestimate personality and underestimate the situation when making attributions, especially with people they do not know well.
When we make attributions for people we know well and care about, this tendency flips. Think about your best friend. If they didn’t call you back right away, would you think it is because they are rude or cold-hearted? Probably not. You’d think of the specific reasons they might not be able to call back because you know a lot about their situation. Maybe they’re stuck in a meeting or caring for a loved one.
You still can’t get an easy ticket out of it saying you can’t help it! Judgments are like a default setting but the context given to them is our personally programmed plug. Un-plug that.