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When Someone Treats You Badly: Are You the Cause?

How do we know if we are to blame or the other person?

Key points

  • There is often a simple but effective way to discover, in a broad sense, why someone has unexpectedly mistreated you.
  • Often our explanations for others' behavior toward us come down to whether the cause is something about us or something about them.
  • Understanding the common ways that people explain the causes of others' behavior provides useful tools for navigating everyday life.

“He treats me the same way too,” I said, encouragingly.

A newly hired employee had stopped by my office. Although I was having a meeting with another colleague, we invited her in, as she seemed troubled by something. Also, she had made quick friends with both of us in the few weeks since she had joined our organization. After small talk, she disclosed that she was concerned that a senior manager didn’t seem to like her. When they passed each other in the hallways, the man never looked up and never said hello. Had she done something to cause the manager not to like her? Clearly, she was worried that she was now in trouble with someone who might affect her job standing.

But when I informed her that I always received the same treatment, the expression on her face transformed from worry to hopeful relief.

Then, my other colleague said, “Yeah, he’s that way with me too. It’s him, not you.”

Now, everyone was grinning. We even shared a laugh.

This exchange highlights a natural question that arises when someone behaves in an unexpected, negative way toward us:

Why? What caused the behavior?

Maybe, we said something that was misinterpreted, and this person has taken offense? Should we make more of an effort to be friendly to people in general? On the other hand, maybe this person is bad-tempered, self-absorbed, or just absentminded? Perhaps, this person doesn’t pay attention to people of lower status.

There are usually many candidate causes, but, in essence, the broad question often comes down to this: Is it you or this person?

The question won’t go away, especially if the stakes seem high.

Social psychologists credit Fritz Heider for making this simple yet far-reaching point about how we frequently understand the causes of other people's behavior.

Is it you or this person?

Another social psychologist, Harold Kelley, borrowing from the philosopher John Stuart Mills' methods of agreement and difference, outlined some of the common ways we go about answering this causal puzzle with sufficient certainty.

One way is to find how the person behaves in other situations with other people.

If you’re the only one the person treats this way, it’s probably something about you that caused the behavior. Something about you is making the difference.

If most people are also treated this way (that is, there is “agreement"), it’s probably something about this person.

Notice, in the case of the new employee, it didn’t take much sampling of the manager’s behavior to solve the causal question to her satisfaction. Just two fresh cases, making three in total.

Even my initial revelation that the manager treated me the same way—a single fresh case—produced instant, however hopeful, relief in her. Phew!—her expression communicated.

And the causal clincher was my other colleague adding that he also received the same treatment.

What, in particular, was the manager's problem? Well, this would be more difficult to fathom; but, it was him not her.

Of course, our sampling of other people’s behavior may often reveal a more complex pattern, and many human biases will shape the process, but when the pattern aligns as it did in this case, the broad cause will seem plain.

The same logic applies to positive as well as negative behaviors (though positive and negative behaviors may have some distinctive attributional challenges). Why did a woman unexpectedly praise me? Is it because I am particularly worthy of praise? Or, does she tend to flatter everyone? It is me or is it her? A sample of her behavior in similar circumstances with other people will likely solve the general attributional question.

Negative behaviors toward us seem to get our stronger attention; again, when the stakes are high.

The logic is powerfully applied in many settings, such as when we need to prove our innocence—by revealing a sample of the other person’s similar, negative behavior.

More often than not, only two fresh instances (perhaps only one) will do the trick.

Wondrously, If we learn that this person treats others in the same negative way—it is him or her, not us—oh, what a relief it is.


Alicke, M. D., Mandel, D. R., Hilton, D. J., Gerstenberg, T., & Lagnado, D. A. (2015). Causal Conceptions in Social Explanation and Moral Evaluation: A Historical Tour. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 790–812.

Anderson, R.A., Crockett, M.J., & Pizarro, D.A. (2020). A Theory of Moral Praise. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24 (9), 694-703.

Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Volume 15, pp. 192-238). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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