Our initial impressions about other people are often far from accurate. We might judge someone for not holding the door open for us, but perhaps he didn’t even see us, or has trouble hearing and didn’t sense us approaching. In The Power of Context, Daniel Stalder discusses why we make judgments about other people and how these judgments are often wrong.
These fundamental attribution errors (FAE) lead to unnecessary conflict in our lives. We get fired up over something that was not what we perceived it to be. Assuming traits or intentions about people and not considering other situational factors is a primary cause of FAE. In the hypothetical example, what if we knew that the man walking through the door without holding it was responding to an emergency? If we had this information, we would be less inclined to make an FAE and more likely to react to his behavior with understanding.
When pointing out how often FAE occurs, Stalder did not shy away from some of the controversial issues in our culture, such as the Trayvon Martin shooting. Without laying blame, he encouraged the reader to consider what might have happened with George Zimmerman that we did not know. For example, parts of the 911 tape were not shared by the mass media and significantly impacted perceptions of this horrible tragedy.
Stalder’s aim in analyzing the Martin/Zimmerman case was not to identify one person as right and one as wrong. Instead, it was about asking all of us to look at situational factors that might influence an outcome. In the majority of situations we encounter or read about, we will not have all the information we want. If we can become more aware that we do not know everything, we are well on the way to reducing our bias and committing FAE less often.
Stalder spends a fair amount of time in the book talking about behavior on the roadways because that’s something most of us are familiar with. If we see someone driving erratically, we may refer to that someone as an idiot. Our initial thought is that he’s a bad driver when in fact he might be rushing to get his wife to the emergency room. Although rushing to the ER is not a frequent occurrence, it does remind us that these things do happen, and we can respond by giving other people a little bit of grace.
Consider, too, how nonverbal behavior influences assumptions when we do not have all the facts. Stalder shared an unfortunate example of a basketball team where a few players — who were black — made hand signals that were interpreted as gang signs. The FAE was ascribed due to race, but there was another missing piece from the story. The photographer asked the players to do something fun for the picture. Turns out their hand signals represented a three-point basketball shot. Unfortunately, two boys were suspended from school for a couple days and this was all based on an image. Skin color was apparent, but the reason for the hand signals and the verbal instruction from the photographer were not.
The numerous scenarios and extensive research in The Power of Context were a bit overwhelming. It is mind blowing to see the multiple ways our biases come into play on a daily basis. It was good information to know — I don’t argue with that. I only halfway joke that it seems a little bit easier to be ignorant than to keep this wealth of information top of mind.
At the very end of the book, Stalder did share some ways to reduce our risk of committing FAE, such as educating ourselves about situational factors and being slower to judge. I would have liked to see this section fleshed out more with guidance about what to do next. But knowing about our tendency to commit the FAE should be enough information to motivate and guide us on self-policing our biases.
The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others
Daniel R. Stalder
Hardcover, 320 pages