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How to Increase Civility: The Important Role of the Correspondence Bias

Correcting a sneaky, automatic bias is one way to be kinder to each other.

Key points

  • There are many possible causes for people’s behaviors. Some lie within the person (their character) and some lie outside (situational factors).
  • The correspondence bias is our tendency to blame people’s bad behaviors on their character and discount situational factors.
  • If we challenge ourselves to think of possible situational causes of behavior, we might treat each other more civilly.
Source: fauxels/pexels

Have you ever behaved rudely, discourteously, inconsiderately, or ungraciously with others? Why? Chances are it’s not because you are a rude and disrespectful person. Likely you behaved with incivility because of the situation you were in, or the things that happened to you that day.

Perhaps you were in a bad mood because of some sad news you had received, or because of an annoying head cold. Perhaps you were in a legitimate hurry and the car you were behind seemed to have all the time in the world. Or, maybe you read a compelling article on a topic about which you feel especially passionate, and became a little argumentative with a neighbor. There are a million reasons why we sometimes act rudely to one another, and many of those reasons are rooted in the situation or context.

Incivility in Society

Americans routinely engage in and witness aggressive or mean-spirited behavior towards one another, and nearly all of us think it is a problem (See here, here, here, and here for some data on Americans' perceptions of the incivility "crisis"). Much of the everyday incivility we see occurs online. Cancelling, political polarization, shaming, piling on: These are only some examples of incivility in social behaviors that have become commonplace, especially through social media.

If we know it is a problem, and most of us want to see change, what steps can we take to increase civility? One clue from social psychology comes from the way we explain others’ behaviors.

When you hear a stranger say something that sounds mean, or see someone act rudely, how do you typically explain their behavior? What are you most likely to think of first? Unfortunately, we don’t usually think about the million situational reasons someone might be acting as they are. And it is here—in our attributions of the cause of others’ behaviors—that each of us can do our part to make the world a bit more civil.

The Correspondence Bias

The correspondence bias is our tendency to blame someone’s character for a particular behavior they are displaying, and ignore the considerable power of the situation 1. We tend to assume the observed behavior corresponds to the person’s character or personality. For example, when we see someone drive aggressively and cut someone off in traffic, we tend to think they’re an inconsiderate person who selfishly thinks the rules of the road don’t apply to them. In other words, we attribute their bad behavior to their core personality.

The second part of the correspondence bias is that we discount the situational reasons for others’ behavior. For example, an inconsiderate driver might have just learned their child has been taken to the hospital. In those circumstances, aggressive driving is understandable, and we probably wouldn’t condemn the driver as being a bad person based on that behavior. The correspondence bias includes our tendency to not consider these situational possibilities.

It may also be helpful to remember that we can observe some aspects of the situation, (i.e., we are all waiting in this long line), but we cannot observe other aspects (i.e., he just lost his job today).

The Consequences

When we attribute someone’s bad behavior to their character, it is easier to justify reacting to them aggressively, either online (by piling on with a hostile comment) or in real life (with a mean word or behavior). Treating a bad person harshly seems especially justified if a lot of other people are doing it too.

When we instead attribute someone’s bad behavior to aspects of the situation, we may be less likely to react aggressively toward them. Instead of condemning their character, the experience might even lead to greater understanding or connection to them, especially if you have had a similar experience. As a result, our actions will probably be much more civil.

It's usually much quicker and easier to dismiss a misbehaving person as a jerk. And sometimes, they may actually be one! But, we don’t really have to figure that out—re-thinking our attributions is not so much about identifying others’ true motivations as it is about taking the opportunity to grow our own civility.

In Sum

So, a good starting place for increasing civility is to watch out for your own correspondence bias. The next time you find yourself witnessing a slice of impolite or rude behavior, imagine that that slice may not entirely reflect the person’s true character. Instead, try thinking of some other factors that you didn’t see that might explain their actions.

Most of us have behaved inconsiderately at one time or another. You probably regret it, and maybe even apologized minutes later. But what if someone had their phone out, and happened to catch that interaction, isolated, out of context, with no other information? How would you want viewers of that slice of behavior to judge you?

More from Patrick Gallagher, Ph.D., and Ashleigh Gallagher, Ph.D.
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