In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Dan and Chip Heath write, “What looks like a person problem is (often) a situation problem.” They cite a 2002 study by Brian Wansink from Cornell University, where moviegoers were randomly given medium or large containers of free popcorn that were either fresh or stale. The result? Container size was a direct influence on popcorn consumption. Moviegoers ate 45% more fresh popcorn when given large containers. AND, even more surprising was that they ate 33% more, 14 day-old, stale popcorn when given large containers.
Or, as the Heath brothers comment, those with larger buckets were transformed into “popcorn-gorging gluttons” as a result of their situation.
We make the Fundamental Attribution Error when we attribute other people’s actions to their character or personality and when we explain our own actions in terms of situational factors.
When someone cuts you off in traffic, they’re a jerk.
When you cut someone off in traffic, you couldn’t help it. You were running late and you looked before you changed lanes, you just didn’t see the other car.
How about a church example? When someone misses a church meeting because they forgot, you decide they just don’t care about God’s work in the church. Or that they’re unorganized. Or that they have their priorities out of line. Or all three.
When you miss a meeting because you forgot, it’s because you had way too much going on. There was an assignment at work, your aging mother called and talked for 30 minutes and then you got distracted by an article in the paper about how hoverboards catch on fire. But you’re a good person and you care about God’s work.
What if we took seriously the idea that we will be judged in the same way that we judge others, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:2?
Perhaps we would look at the situation of others to try to explain their behavior instead of being critical of their character or personality. Perhaps we would cut them some slack.
More importantly, when we start to look at how people behave in terms of the situation, we have a much greater opportunity to find ways to lead change.
What would you rather do, try to change people or try to change the situation?