Friday, 26 April 2013


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 puzzling remarks made by those around us and making judgments about their behaviours in an attempt to understand our social world. Let’s say that you judged your classmate to be 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 his 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 excuses one’s personal responsibility in 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 also very important in determining how we act in a particular situation. In the previous example, you may act in a critical manner to your classmate because you judged him to be lazy. You may be more understanding towards him if you had taken into consideration his unpunctual auto-rickshaw 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 3 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 more bitterness and makes forgiving 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 very poor jokes and none of your classmates enjoy them. In such a situation in which the majority does not see eye to eye with the new boy while he finds all poor jokes very funny, 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 itself as opposed to his personal taste in movies. Our attributions thus depend on the view of the majority and the degree of likeness between an individual and the larger group, which makes it important that we stay fair while appraising others’ behaviour. Going with the crowd may not always be the right thing.

     As with any social process, we tend to commit many errors while attributing too. One of the common errors is to attribute others’ negative behaviour to their personal, internal factors while under-estimating the external, situational factors. We also 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 a style of attribution can greatly harm our self-esteem and cause us to become depressed.

     Keep an open mind about others’ life situations and positive personal traits before passing judgment. We would definitely like others to show us the same consideration, wouldn’t we?