The Pitfalls of Perception and Attribution Errors

Let’s face it; we don’t start from scratch when we interact with others. We show up with previous experiences, attitudes, and ideas about others and ourselves. Particularly in a work environment, where many different interactions occur (and sometimes we have little choice who we interact with), these perceptual “shortcuts” can overpower our judgments and understanding of others. These (often false) impressions then impact our behaviors and attitudes towards others. As Generation Y career women, we will work with thousands of people throughout our lives and we sometimes have little choice who they are. It’s crucial to our success and growth that we don’t fall into the trap of misjudging others.

I’m not suggesting we all walk around with our Myers-Briggs personality type displayed on our chest– though that is a fun group exercise. However, strengthening our awareness of these shortcuts helps us increase the clarity and accuracy with which we make judgments about others and makes us better informed leaders with the capacity to make true impact on others.

Perceptual Errors

Perceptions are our brain’s way of processing and organizing sensory data to so we can understand it. Three common perceptual errors can lead to misconstrual of events and may leave you putting your foot in your mouth.

The Halo effect: No, this isn’t the belief that everyone’s an angel. This error happens when we gather impressions about someone based on a single characteristic.

  • Have you ever decided you liked someone for a job based on the fact that he/she went to your university?
  • Have you ever thought someone was a nerd just because they wore glasses?
  • Have you ever thought someone was a snob because she walked into work with a Chanel suit?

Whether it be from clothing, race, ethnicity, birthplace, or educational background, etc.. it’s important that we look past these superficial characteristics when cultivating our judgments of others.

Mirror image fallacy: This refers to our tendency to assume that people are essentially alike, or that everyone is “just like me!”

  • Has the management team at your job ever made a decision based on their opinions, without asking for feedback from others?
  • Have you ever made a decision on behalf of others without asking for their opinion?
  • Have you ever vented to a coworker about your boss, assuming they must feel the same as you?

Looking back, do you think you might have fallen victim to the mirror image fallacy? Our awareness of this phenomenon can prevent ourselves from making them and can illuminate what can sometimes be behind organizational decisions.

Stereotyping: When we carry beliefs about the characteristics of a group that alters our judgments, this can have deep repercussions.

  • Have you ever assumed that a woman would not stand up for herself in an argument at work based on the belief that they are more subservient than their male counterparts?
  • Have you ever budgeted less for female employees because you assumed they would not negotiate their salary?

Whether in our personal or professional lives, it is essential that we question ourselves and where our conclusions come from, so that we don’t fall blame to pervasive errors that distorts reality.

Attributions

This happens when we infer explanations for behavior in ourselves and in others. Within this realm, there is one error we often fall victim to.

Fundamental attribution error: Have you ever attributed the cause of someone’s behavior to internal factors when the reason was actually external? I think we’ve all resorted to the convenience of this short cut.

  • If a colleague is consistently late for team meetings, do you or someone else assume they are lazy and don’t care?

Though they may very well be lazy, their behavior may also be a result of someone else holding them back, phone calls going late, etc.

The takeaway: Open your mind, then open it more

Rather than assuming things about others via perceptual and attribution shortcuts, I encourage you to gather more information about the person and situation(s). Take in multiple perspectives. If we can make even just a little more space for an open mind, we will likely be more compassionate, stronger team players and will adopt a more accurate view of our environment and others.

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Jessica Youngman is in graduate school at Columbia University studying Social Organizational Psychology. Previously she lived in San Francisco and worked for JVS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people reach self sufficiency through finding meaningful work.