The Attribution of Intent

Suppose I am driving in the city and have decided it would be useful to merge in to the outside lane of traffic. Just as I am about to do so the car behind and to my right seems to accelerate to prevent me from taking advantage of the gap in the traffic. I brake and stay in the left hand lane. Meanwhile I curse the male driver with his female passenger in the back for his lack of courtesy. My anger is a result of my believing that the other driver chose to cut me off with no consideration for my rights on the road.

Unbeknownst to me the male driver of the other car was virtually oblivious of me. His only motivation was to get his wife, who is in labour to the maternity ward as quickly as possible. If I had known that, would I have still had the same angry response? You will probably agree that it is unlikely that I would have.

As we have previously seen, many of the problems relating to human relationships come back to some very common, but erroneous assumptions we make about human behaviour.

One of these assumptions, I mentioned briefly in last week’s blog is the assumption of intent behind human behaviour. In it I quoted the renowned Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo who maintains “The fundamental flaw in all our thinking is the natural tendency to attribute deliberate intent to human behaviour” This he maintains is one of the major sources of problems in interpersonal relationships.

When someone behaves in an objectionable way to us, we believe that such behaviour was deliberately chosen by the other person. We assume that the other person could just as easily have chosen to behave differently. By imputation, we assume then that because the behaviour was deliberate and we found it hurtful in some way, then the other person obviously had ill-intent towards us.

Because we tend to attribute to the behaviours of others the subconscious motive we ourselves would have for such actions, and relate to them in terms of our attributions, it is obvious that our relationships are doomed to failure if we can’t take a more considered approach to human behaviour. Unless we take a more benign approach to the behaviour of others we are destined to suffer in our relationships with other people.

Research has shown that aggressive and antisocial behaviour in children correlates quite strongly with their assumptions about intent of the behaviours of others. (See for example “Hostile Attribution of Intent and Aggressive Behaviour: A Meta-Analysis” by de Castro, Veerman et al in Child Development, May/June 2002, Volume 73.)

Before we understand our commonality with others, our lives are competitive, trying to gain what personal advantage we can. There needs to be some shift away from the motive of pure competitive self-interested survival, for any social system, and consequently for its members, to have even a reasonable chance of long term survival.

Love (once again keep in mind that we are talking here about love as a criterion for choice and a motive for action, not as a romantic
ideal) becomes possible as a result of making a fundamental paradigm shift at the core of one’s being, at the level of what I have previously called the “Witness”. [Note: in this context I usually define love as the dissolution of separateness.]This occurs when we can recognise our similarity with other beings and have empathy, rather than seeing them as resources or competitors which results in us denying their humanity.

Such a paradigm shift could be understood as a spiritual or moral shift in the direction of the metaphysical core of our being. When this shift in moral motivation has occurred the individual gradually removes the distinction between the well-being of the self and the well-being of others within his or her social world. This shift of the bias of the ‘Witness’ means that the prime motive served by the intellect when
evaluating its environment, and learning its reactions, has changed.

When the prime motive for action has been modified and the evaluative filter through which a person looks at life has changed, the world is suddenly different!

As previously mentioned, this choice occurs at the core of
our being. It is a choice between living our lives as social beings with either a cooperative or a competitive survival orientation to life. As Martin Buber, Albert Einstein and many others have directly or indirectly indicated, it may in fact be the only real free choice we have in influencing the direction of our life, since it is fundamental to our interpretation all the other unchosen factors — genetic, social and circumstantial — that combine to shape our manifest behaviour.

If this is the case, then we obviously need to view people with this in mind.

If we view people this way, our reactions to them will automatically be different. We will simply see them differently.

The realisation of what it means to be human in terms of the nature of freedom and responsibility may come as a bit of a shock to some people who have lived all of their lives attributing to themselves and to others direct creative responsibility for observed behaviours.

Those who have oscillated from fragile pride to defensive guilt, as a response to their own perceived successes or failures (and admiration and blame in relation to the successes and failures of others) may have difficulty seeing people in this radically different light.

For those who do allow such a shift in thinking to take place, a number of very positive changes in their coping ability will naturally follow.

When people no longer attribute deliberate creative intent to others for perceived negative behaviours towards themselves, and come to understand that this behaviour is simply the other person’s learned way of maintaining a fragile ‘self’ in what is perceived to be a hostile world, they will no longer see themselves as victims. They will learn not to feel hurt, angry, or otherwise defensive. They will actually begin to see the ‘aggressor’ as the real victim – a victim of ‘fear’ and social programming.

What they will find is that when they no longer feel that they are victims in the situation, they will be in a much better position to know how to respond to other people in a positive and helpful fashion. Perhaps they might even make it possible for the ‘fearful’ people to begin to come out of their own ‘self’-defence corners and relate in a more personable fashion. A new social reciprocity will emerge and the changed social dynamics will permit far greater personal, interpersonal and organisational effectiveness.

This willingness to ‘pay the price’ and get beyond fear as a fundamental core motive in one’s life is the real key to being able to become a more effective human being in every situation. This is particularly true for those situations over which we have little direct control. It is also the key to gaining and maintaining a robust sense of well-being that is not dependent upon maintaining the good will of others.

The shift in the ‘Witness’s’ orientation to life from fear to love, is also a shift from a sense of dependence and insecurity to a sense of freedom and inner security. Decisions are more easily made because the subconscious ‘virus’ has been removed and the computer like intellect can get on with the business at hand of living a meaningful and fulfilling life without constant fear of being ‘shot down’ by the defensive darts of those who have not yet come to understand the co-operative principle of life and who still live their lives through fear and competitive engagement.

The co-operative principle of life is not an option. It is a causal principle of life that cannot be broken any more than any other causal law of nature. It is a psychological law in the sense that it operates at the psychological level and determines the nature of our psychological well-being.

The law states that, in terms of my psychological well-being, as distinct from my physical well-being, ‘Everything I give to another, I give to myself’.

In other words, I live with my emotional response to a situation, not with the situation itself.

(Some who believe there is only one consciousness that we all share, might believe that the cooperative principle is indeed literally true! If indeed we All are One, then it is obvious that the giving and receiving can’t be separated.)

The emotional response I have learned to make to a situation is determined by a number of factors. First, as we have seen, it depends on whether my ‘Witness’ looks through a filter of fear or love. This will determine whether I see the situation as psychologically threatening or non-threatening.

If I perceive the situation as threatening I will automatically draw from my repertoire of learned responses one aimed at protecting my ‘self’-esteem from hurt.

If I perceive the situation as non-threatening I will respond to the situation in a way that considers the well-being of all players.

Obviously, because of the apparent cost to the ego involved in making the shift from narcissistic self-concern to a concern for the common survival within a social grouping, not all will be willing to make the shift.

However, it is not necessary that all people within a social system to make the shift, for the social system to be able to work. For a social system to function well, without being hampered by chaotic reciprocal aggression, there must be a ‘critical mass’ of people involved who have made the shift from the motivation of competitive fear to that of co-operative love. This notion of ‘critical mass’ relates to the degree of shift needed so that the positive consequences of co-operative involvement are able to outweigh the negative consequences of competitive involvement. However, if that necessary critical mass is not met, a social system can easily move into a mode of escalating breakdown.

Fear leads to the attribution of intent resulting in defensive, fear based behaviour. This causes self-defence mechanisms to be initiated in those faced with this behaviour. This is, in turn, interpreted not only as negative but also as intentional behaviour, which leads to reciprocal self-defence mechanisms and so on, like the image repeatedly reflected in two opposing mirrors. The outcome of this type of behaviour is dysfunctional relationships that may become so set in place that they last for years.

(On the international scale they can last for decades or longer. Instance the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Each takes action as it sees as a defensive response to the other’s aggression. The other interprets the defensive response as aggression and mounts their own defensive response which is in turn interpreted as aggression – and so on, ad nauseum!)

Let me finish with a little observation. Quite early in my career I found that people were never any better than you expected them to be. (Pygmalion Effect, self-fulfilling prophecy or whatever!) As a result of this I decided that the best outcome for me and for them was to have a high (perhaps good?) expectation of people. I am sure this has served me well. Those of you who are pessimistic about humanity, who are not prepared to expose yourselves in this way to the world, will certainly say, “If you do that people will take advantage of you!” And of course that is true – some people have taken advantage of me but, in truth a very small number. But that has been compensated for a thousand-fold for those who grown and thrived with such positive attribution.

2 Replies to “The Attribution of Intent”

  1. I have rarely found that given the right opportunity a person in the appropriate environment will always rise up and exceed your expectations. Our social-economic-technical systems need to be treated as precious finely tuned and balanced systems that need to tame the fear and encourage the love. leaderships roles need to create this environment through firstly role modelling, coaching then establishing systems that reinforce the correct behaviours. Thanks Ted for reminding us of this.

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