A father paced the floor. His sixteen-year-old daughter was on her first date and promised to be home before midnight. It was 12:35 am.

Finally, he heard a key slide in the front door lock, slowly turn, and in snuck his daughter. Before she could even close the door he yelled, “You’re late! You know the rules and you broke your promise.”

As he approached her he could smell beer and immediately exploded. “You have been drinking! You are grounded young lady. You will not go on any dates for six months!”

“But Daddy…”

“Don’t you but daddy’ me.” He pointed his finger in her face as a warning. “Now get to your room. Go!”

The daughter started crying and ran upstairs.

In less than a minute, a painful crucial conversation was handled badly and an important relationship was damaged.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

This dad and his daughter were victims of a basic human condition. It’s one of the most studied phenomena in psychology-the fundamental attribution error. Simply stated, it’s the overwhelming human tendency under conditions of stress or perceived harm to assume the worst about other’s motives.

Consider these self-talk questions and answers we might review in crucial moments.

  • Why did he call me irresponsible? Because he’s mean. He likes hurting people.
  • Why did she do such a poor job? Because she’s lazy and doesn’t care.
  • Why is my husband so late picking me up? He probably forgot. I’m not a priority in his life. I’m an afterthought.

This common reaction is fundamental because almost all of us do it almost all of the time. It’s called an attribution because we attribute motives to another’s actions even though we have no idea into the real reason behind their actions. And lastly, it’s called an error because in the vast majority of cases, the motive we attribute to their actions is not the real reason they did what they did. Most of the time, when we attribute others’ actions to an evil motive, we are wrong.

This fundamental attribution is actually an immensely helpful reaction if we are in the jungle facing a tiger, but in a complex social interaction, it’s the worst mode possible. By assuming others have a negative and hurtful motive, we feel justified in responding to them in a hurtful way. We accuse, we yell, we threaten, or even worse, we withdraw, give them the silent treatment, or freeze them out. We think, “They started it, they hurt me,” and by doing so, we rationalize our own bad behavior. This is how good people feel good about doing bad things; after all, “I just gave him the treatment he deserves”.

Even our spiritual heroes are not immune to this error. In Alma chapter 60, one of the great spiritual warriors, Captain Moroni, was in a perilous situation. The Lamanite invaders were more numerous than the Nephite armies and had conquered many Nephite cities. Moroni desperately needed men and provisions, but the Government had horribly neglected him and his army. Righteous, bold Captain Moroni writes an epistle to the Nephite leader, Pahoran, and those who manage the affairs of the war.

“…I have somewhat to say…by the way of condemnation…We desire to know the cause of this exceedingly great neglect; yea we desire to know the cause of your thoughtless state…the blood of thousands shall come upon your heads for vengeance…behold it is to your condemnation…And now except you do repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing…behold, I come unto you…and smite you with the sword…Behold, I am Moroni, your chief captain…And thus I close mine epistle.” (Alma 60:1-36)

Because Moroni and his armies have been so badly treated, Moroni assumes it is because Pahoran and those at the head of the Government are neglectful, uncaring and seeking their own comfort and power instead of doing what is right. Moroni demands that they repent and do what they should or he will come and put them to death. The story he tells himself to explain their hurtful behavior is a harsh judgment that leads to his anger and his threat of extreme violence. Based on Moroni’s assumptions, his judgment and threats are justified and even righteous.

Pahoran sends a stunning epistle in response: “Behold I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul…behold, they (the Kingsmen) have driven me out…and I have fled to the land of Gideon…Those who have risen up in rebellion against us are set at defiance…They have got possession of Zarahemla, they have appointed a king over them…”

Moroni was so very wrong in his judgments. Pahoran is not neglecting Moroni’s army because he is evil; he is fighting a civil war. He is fighting for the very same cause as is Moroni: the preservation of the Nephites and their liberty.

Addressing Moroni’s harsh judgments toward him, Pahoran writes, “And now, in your epistle you have censored me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart…” (Alma 61:1-21)

Pahoran refuses to take offense from Moroni’s condemnation. His response reminds me of a quote attributed to Brigham Young, “It’s a fool who takes offense when none is intended. And a bigger fool who takes offense when one is.”

After Pahoran clarifies the situation, Captain Moroni raises the standard of liberty, joins with Pahoran and his forces, overcomes the Kingmen and drives the Lamanites from their land.

There is much we can learn from both Moroni’s committing the fundamental attribution error and from Pahoran’s refusal to be offended even though he was falsely accused. Moroni told himself a story about Pahoran’s motives that made sense to him based on his experience. However, he was wrong. He didn’t have all the facts. He jumped to conclusions. Like Moroni, our negative stories about others’ motives are usually wrong.

The Humanizing Question

The key to overcoming the natural-man’s tendency to assume the worst about others’ motives is not to polish our apology skills nor learn to control our anger and frustration. Rather, the key to overcoming this destructive chain of events is to question our story. Questioning the negative story we tell ourselves about others’ motives causes us to consider alternate explanations for their apparently hurtful behavior. To accomplish this, ask yourself one question: “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” Or, if this is too unwieldy, ask, “Why would a decent person act this way?”

We can use this question to start thinking about our thinking. It helps us explore our stories, judgments and reactions and leads us to the truth of why the other person did what they did.

Remember the Dad who yelled at his daughter? The next morning, after he cooled off, he sat down with his daughter and demanded to know exactly what happened.

Though still hurt and upset, she explained that her date had taken her to a movie and then afterward to ice cream. They had a good time. On their way home, they passed a friend’s house. There were cars parked up and down the street, some even parked on the lawn. Her date said “Party! Let’s go check it out.”

She reminded him, “I have to be home by midnight.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get you home on time,” he replied.

The house was crowded with kids and loud music and she could not see evidence of any adult supervision. A lot of the partygoers were smoking and drinking. She turned to her date and said “Please take me home”.

He seemed irritated. “I’ll get you home by midnight.”

She persisted, “I don’t feel comfortable here. Please take me home.”

Angry, he said, “If you want to leave, find your own way home.” Then he joined the party.

She phoned home. The line was busy. She phoned again, still busy. Unbeknownst to her or her parents, her younger sister (against Dad’s rules for her bedtime) was downstairs talking with her friend on the phone.

Finally, the daughter called a friend who worked at a restaurant nearby. She explained that she was stranded and he said he would come get her as soon as he got off work at midnight.

As she waited, others offered her a drink. She refused. They insisted. They accidentally spilled beer on her sweater. So, she left the party and sat on the curb, alone in the dark, until her ride came and he drove her straight home.

Then, after doing everything her father would have wanted her to do in this situation, he met her at the door, yelled at her, falsely accused her and grounded her.

When Dad found out the next morning what happened, he sincerely apologized, but it took several months before the warmth returned to their relationship.

Achieving a Better Outcome

If we rewound the evening, we’d find that at around ten minutes after midnight, Dad realized his daughter was late and figured she would walk in the door any minute. At twenty minutes after, he told himself that she didn’t care about his rules or the reasons he set them. This story caused him to be upset. At thirty after, he thought, “This is intentional rebelliousness. She doesn’t respect our values, she doesn’t keep her word, and she is disrespecting me.”

This escalating story created anger. He paced, repeating this story in his mind and stoking his anger. When his daughter came in thirty-seven minutes late and smelling of beer, his anger exploded. He not only gave in to his anger, but was full of righteous indignation because he knew he was right and justified in expressing it.

The irony of the situation is that the daughter did not make Dad mad. The story Dad told himself about his daughter is what made him mad. If he had changed his story, he would have changed his emotions, which in turn would have changed his response.

If, after recognizing his escalating anger, Dad had asked himself, “Why would my responsible, decent daughter be late for her curfew?” He might come up with various answers. The first might be, “Because she’s being rebellious!” But after mastering his story, he’d come to consider the possibilities of car trouble, bad traffic, or that she was innocently having fun and lost track of time. The valuable revelation is that all of these reasons are possibilities and Dad can’t know which reason is true until he has a conversation with his daughter.

Instead of assuming the worst, he ought to have reserved judgment and asked his daughter when she returned home. Judgments create anger, frustration, and offense. Questions create curiosity and perhaps concern. Most importantly, listening to the answers to those questions leads to understanding.

So imagine a more successful crucial conversation. As time passes, Dad asks himself the humanizing question and thinks of many possible explanations for his daughter’s tardiness. He feels concern. When she walks in the door, he feels relief. Hugging her he says, “Honey, I was so concerned. You are half an hour late. What happened?”And now he listens.

By mastering your story, you are now thinking clearly, you better understand the situation and you can more thoughtfully choose the best way to deal with it.

This simple skill does not guarantee that everything will turn out exactly the way we want, but it dramatically increases the likelihood we can solve the problem without ruining the relationship. Master your stories and you will preserve your most valuable relationships.