Back-to-School Lesson: Fundamental Attribution Error

Class is in session with Entrepreneur in Residence and Psychologist Dr. Lauren Hazzouri.

From Lauren:
The start of school has become as stressful for parents as it is for children. Aside from the additional activities, child-care arrangements, hours spent in the school pickup line and the amped-up discipline (and frustration!) that comes with keeping our kids on a schedule, we stress about them “fitting in” socially and doing well academically. Let’s face it—society puts a great deal of pressure on children these days, and while we don’t want to add more to their plates, we don’t want them to be left in the dust either! In addition, stores and marketers have made back-to-school a “season” that requires as much preparation as the holidays. Much like the holidays, back-to-school season is laden with expectations for parents. Long gone are the days of packing a PB&J, a Dorito-filled Ziplock and an apple in a brown bag lunch. Social media pings us with “lunch hacks” for heart-shaped tea sandwiches fit for the most elaborate of bridal showers. (Never in my training was sandwich shape mentioned as an important part of parenting!) It’s hard to keep perspective when your child’s bestie’s mom is the perfect cross between Martha Stewart and Maria Marlowe. I get it!

During the back-to-school transition, many of us want to be present for all of the firsts (the first PTA meeting, the first ballet class, the first art class), which is not an easy feat. To do so, we ditch the stress-management strategies—eating healthy meals, sleeping consistently, exercising regularly, etc.—that keep our perspective on point to make time for traipsing our kids to their after-school activities. Instead of preaching, again, about the importance of self-care (which cannot be over-stated!), I suggest learning a new #skillset that you can practice in your car. The bonus: This one will not only benefit you but will help your children immensely, too! Research tells us that when we’re in a heightened stress state (much like the back-to-school transition period!), our attributions perpetuate stress.

Fundamental attribution theory (FAE) "describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior.” Here’s how FAE works: Imagine that you’ve been waiting in the car line for over a half hour and just before dismissal, Arianna’s mom comes flying in front of you on a wing and a prayer. You think, “What a *&^%!! She’s so entitled and self-centered. I skipped my meeting today so that I could be first in line. We’re never going to make it to ballet class on time, because Arianna’s mom is such a jerk! Errrr….” Immediately, you attributed her behavior to her personality, rather than to the situation. Little did you know that Arianna’s grandmother was just taken to the hospital by ambulance, and Arianna’s mom was grabbing Arianna en route to the ER. Her behavior was purely situational.

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is very common, and our children do it, too. How often have you heard your child say, “So-and-so ignored me today. She’s not very nice.”? Meanwhile, so-and-so wasn’t feeling well today because she was awake listening to her parents argue about finances ’til three a.m. You get the point! Now that you’ve got the 411 on FAE, you can school your child on not making that same mistake twice. Not only does FAE affect stress levels, but it also affects relationships. Back-to-school is the perfect time for your entire family to face FAE head-on! Here’s how. 9-29_back-to-school-lesson-1

1. Hold onto your power

In the words of Viktor Frankyl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Remember that responsibility is the ability to respond—and not react—to situations in our environment. It’s important to model that for our children, too. Teaching responsibility means not only providing opportunities for our children to do chores, complete homework and wake up to an alarm clock, but also teaching them to be responsible for regulating their affect in various situations—handling life on life’s terms, not their terms. 9-29_back-to-school-lesson-2

2. Try on her shoes

One interesting aspect of FAE is that, in addition to attributing others’ behavior to their personalities, we also tend to attribute our own behavior to situations. Surprise, surprise—we, typically, give ourselves a pass, as our intuitive self-evaluation is often quite positive. Next time you’re ready to lay on the horn or your child comes home complaining about person A or B, remember to ask yourself, “What might be a reason I would behave that way?” Keep in mind, we are all much more similar than we are different. 9-29_back-to-school-lesson-3

3. Practice mindfulness

Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing and feel what it’s like to be in your body. Use your senses—sight, sound, touch, taste and smell—to get present. When a negative thought comes into your awareness, imagine it gently washing away. Controlling your nervous system activity makes handling life a whole lot easier. 9-29_back-to-school-lesson-4

4. Think collectivism

It’s said that individualistic societies struggle more with FAE, because we’re thinking of ourselves and our individual immediate goals. When we take a minute to realize that we’re all a part of the bigger picture and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, empathy flows. Practicing these tips will allow you and your children to get through back-to-school season and beyond with ease, balance, grace—and a ton of friends, too!

For more from Dr. Lauren Hazzouri, read her recent columns on the site, follow her on Instagram or visit her online at HeyLauren.com.