Understanding People’s Stories


Braden Wong, Staff Writer

Our impressions of other people are delicate, constantly changing, and in most cases, completely incorrect.

Our assumptions can be shattered with simple sentences. Imagine an individual whom you don’t particularly agree with. What if I told you he had tragically lost a loved one a few weeks ago? That she had been sleep-deprived for a week caring for her newborn child? Or that they had recently been fired from their job of 40 years?

It is unlikely that any of us would harbor the same resentment to those individuals when provided such explanations. We may have believed an individual to be lazy, to be mean, to be disagreeable, when in fact personal events provide a much clearer insight into their conduct—that it just might not be their “fault”.

This psychological phenomenon is known as the Fundamental Misattribution Error (FME), where one attributes a person’s actions to internal factors, like personality and disposition, rather than external situations, such as a traffic jam during their morning commute. We all have almost certainly had these situations happen to us before, our interpretations of others’ behaviors being wholly (and perhaps embarrassingly) disproved. But is this a bad thing, and how should we approach minimizing this effect?

According to experts, 55% of making a new first impression is determined solely by visual cues. However, making the majority of our judgments based on what we can see occludes the reality of attraction: that we often like people for factors which we simply cannot see. More importantly, the tendency towards FME demonstrates haste: to quickly uncover one’s personality, rather than to get to know them and understand their story. However, it is often these stories and elements that we cannot see that humanize their pursuits: their family at home, their work, their hobbies, etc. Our manner of judgment is shallow, FME being a quintessential demonstration—but we agree with others through depth.

In many ways, FME explains how our feelings can often change very quickly. After all, we judge individuals based on their character, not circumstances. And yet, it is ironic that we often do so. Perhaps it is some arrogance, that the manner in which we see others is the only view we need to make proper judgment.

To harness this effect, it is important to keep an open mind and consideration of what goes on for others. For example, I generally believe that everyone who acts disagreeable is just having a bad day, not that they are naturally disagreeable. The simple fact is that it is much nicer to blame the actions on circumstances, rather than to blame it on others. We rarely humanize others through storytelling, because humanizing others is an excuse to be kind, but telling ourselves stories that explain behaviors and painting our realities are a true reason to be civil and kind.

Author Mary Lou Kownacki once stated, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” In a world that consistently moves faster and reserves judgments, no adage could hold more true. Keeping her words in mind, striving towards open-mindedness and giving others the benefit of the doubt can lead us to a more connected and understanding world.


Graphic courtesy of GIVINGCOMPASS.ORG