Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 48;   November 28, 2012: Why Others Do What They Do

Why Others Do What They Do

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Caneel with a close friend (me)

Caneel with a close friend. I'm the one at the right. Note Caneel's expression of (barely) patient tolerance. That was pretty much the way things went with us. She liked me and I liked her (both very much), and we both put up with some things we didn't like now and then, because it was worth it. Way worth it.

When someone does something that causes you some inconvenience or discomfort, tolerance might be the best available choice. Why they did whatever they did might not make any real difference.

Although I'm currently dogless, I consider myself a dog lover. One dog in particular — Caneel, a golden retriever who passed on long ago — still occupies a warm place in my heart. Caneel taught me something about how people (myself, in particular) make mistakes when we try to understand why others do what they do.

I used to walk Caneel every morning in a park near home. Even though there was very little traffic in our neighborhood, I kept her on a lead until we reached the park, for safety. She'd pull me along, keeping the lead taut, sniffing everything as she went. I always assumed that she needed a little more obedience training.

When we would reach the park, I'd take her off lead, always expecting her to bound off immediately into the woods. She never did. She would sit, looking up at me, puzzled, tilting her head first one way then the other, as dogs do. I'd say, "OK, go!" And off she would go. I couldn't figure out why she would tug at the lead all the way to the park, and then, once freed, she needed encouragement to go run.

One day, I realized that her experience of the lead might be different from mine. She might have been thinking, "Rick put me on the lead so he won't get lost, and he wants me to pull him along to show him the way to the park." And when I took her off the lead, she might have been thinking, "Are you sure you'll be OK without me for a few minutes if I run off?"

Crazy as this explanation sounds, it fits the data. It might be right.

Often When someone does something
that causes you some inconvenience
or discomfort, tolerance might be the
best available choice. Why they did
whatever they did might not
make any real difference.
we assume that we know why others do what they do, but we're often wrong. Here are some of the many ways we get it wrong when we guess why others do what they do.

Premature conclusions
We reach conclusions before we have enough data to justify them. Sometimes, we reach conclusions with no data.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
We attribute to character what might better be attributed to circumstances. See "The Fundamental Attribution Error," Point Lookout for May 5, 2004, for more.
Presumed omniscience
We presume that we already know all there is to know about why someone might do what he or she just did.
Preferred explanations
We have biases and preferences among the many theories and conjectures about human motivation. We see what we expect to see, or worse, what we want to see.
Intimidation
We're afraid to question (or seek validation for) some hypotheses, because of the consequences of finding out that they're incorrect (or correct).

At some point today, there's a decent chance that you'll make one of these mistakes. Maybe more than one. If you do, don't ask me why. I have no clue why you do what you do. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble  Next Issue

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When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
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As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.

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