The fundamental attribution error

The other week, I spoke in church on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).

In this well-known story, we often focus on the positive example of the Samaritan himself.  However, what’s equally interesting to consider is the behaviour of the two men (the priest and temple assistant) who passed by on the other side.

You see, I’d be willing to bet that, if you’d been able to ask them beforehand what they ‘d do in the situation that they subsequently found themselves in, they’d have answered very positively.

“Well obviously of course I’d stop and help! I mean what kind of person would just walk by on the other side of the road? Who’d walk by a fellow human?” they’d cry.  And I bet that if you asked most people these days, we’d say exactly the same thing too.  We’d like to think as highly of ourselves.

But when it came down to it, both men acted very differently didn’t they?  Maybe they ratioanlised their actual behaviour by telling themselves that it was too dangerous?  That the bandits could have still been hiding somewhere?  Or perhaps they were in a rush to get to a meeting and knew (or at least hoped) that someone else would be along in a while?

This ought to challenge us to ask the same question of ourselves.  What would we actually do?  How do we really think of other people?  Would we make similar excuses?

In human behavior, there’s a thing called the Fundamental Attribution Error.  It goes like this:

We judge ourselves, our actions and our position in the world based on what we see around us (our environment etc.) and also based on a whole host of internal thoughts, feelings, fears and other such hidden motivators.

But – and it’s a big but…

We judge other people’s motivations only by what we see of them. Only by their outward appearances. We don’t know any of the internal stuff and so we don’t take any of that into account.

So based on the parable of the Good Samaritan, we tend to look very critically at the two priests.  But if faced with a similar situation ourselves, we would cut ourselves a LOT of slack!

The parable of the Good Samaritan means that we’re called to love our neighbour and that means everyone.  That’s the whole point of the story.

To love our neighbour AS OURSELVES – in other words, without the distorting effect of the fundamental attribution error!

That means to love the people we like.  People who share our beliefs, our lifestyles our language and so on.  But it also means that we have to love people who are not like us as well.  People that we don’t like.  People that rub us up the wrong way.  People whose lifestyles we don’t agree with, for whatever reason.  

In fact we’re called to love these people more, because loving them is harder!

It’s easy to love people who are easy to love.  But some people are very hard to love.  So the sacrifice of obedience we have to make in order to love them, as Jesus would love them, is even more important!  

Although this parable is about someone in great physical need, that’s not the important part of the lesson.  It applies equally to the way in which we deal with people we live near, or the person at the next desk to us, or (Heaven forbid) someone in the same church as us. 

You know the one I mean.  

That person who always grumbles.  Who never takes their turn with the chores.  Who has one of those relentlessly annoying, negative, attitudes.  

But maybe, at the moment, they are having a terribly difficult time in life.  Maybe someone close to them is very ill?  Maybe they have serious financial issues?  Perhaps they are suffering with depression?

On the face of it, we can’t see that, but as Christians we are called to look beyond what’s on the surface and into the person underneath.  We’re called to look through that fundamental attribution error to love those around us regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.

And the reason why is very simple:  Because that’s what Jesus would have done.

Simple to say?  Yes.

Difficult to do?  Certainly.

Counter to our very intuition?  Without a doubt.

But no one ever said that following him would be easy.





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