Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Eyes of the Beholder

Writers, psychologists, lyricists, mall walkers, people on the street…all these people and more spend a fair amount of time watching others. But the presence of someone who is “just”observing may influence the actions that are occurring, even at the level of subatomic particles. The Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty suggests such an influence.

And for the observer, it may be more difficult than imagined to watch behavior that occurs without providing a mental filter through which to view human nature. Each observer brings his or her assumptions along even when the goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Sometimes we go so far to ascribe motivation to those whom we watch. We not only wonder why someone engages in a specific behavior, we bring judgment to the scene.

If we see someone waiting patiently for a car to leave a parking spot in a mall lot, only to have someone zip in from the opposite direction and take the spot, we might have immediate hypotheses leap to mind: the person taking the parking space is inconsiderate. A scofflaw. Perhaps even antagonistic. And how does the person who had been waiting patiently respond? With anger, frustration, irritation, annoyance? Or does patience give way to more aggressive behavior such as hand and finger signals?

As the watcher, we observe from the perspective of someone who has been in a similar position before, the position of someone who had waited patiently. We remember how we felt.

However, we are missing the perspective of the individual who had pulled into the vacated space. Does he or she clap hands with glee, knowing full well that he stole such a key spot, so close to the entrance? Or is the hand clap and joy a result of having found a spot at all in a crowded mall parking lot? Or is it possible that the driver never saw the waiting vehicle? Maybe the driver was preoccupied with something that happened earlier. Bad news delivered at work. A family squabble. A doctor visit.

When we assume to know why people behave the way they do and that their motivations arise from something fundamental about them, we are committing what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. We assume ignorance or arrogance or malcontent, when the actual motivation may be much more benign. We operate from a certain history, and it can be difficult to step away from that.

What happens when the tables are turned? What if we are the driver that takes the just emptied parking space? We see a car pull by us as we get out of the car; the driver is angry, maybe talking under his breath. Or maybe the person lowers his window and says something directly to us. Why is he so indignant? I had a right to that spot just as much as he did!

In effect, we may be demonstrating Self-Serving Bias, which occurs when we assess our own motivations much more favorably than we would others. We make mistakes. Other people are idiots. We view our actions through the lens of situational variables. We view the behavior of others as a reflection of personality attributes.

The Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias are just a couple examples of the role that perception plays in sorting out motivation and human behavior. As writers, we can use this understanding to craft compelling characters. As mall walkers and drivers and passers-by, it helps us to remember that there are two sides to every story, and that scenarios we witness are not blank slates that we straightforwardly record. We select an unconscious lens from our bag (or perhaps more correctly, baggage) and THEN we push “record.”


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