Four Soothing Lessons from Social Psychology to Apply to Your Everyday Life

This week's post is written by Sooth Intern, Robert Garcia. Robert recently completed his Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine.

1. Don’t take everything so personally – The Fundamental Attribution Error

That jerk cut me off on the freeway!”  “I was late because a bunch of stuff kept coming up!”  We make these kinds of attributions automatically every day without realizing the underlying patterns at work.  An attribution is a judgment or inference about why someone took a particular action.  A dispositional attribution is the inference that someone did something because of who he or she is (i.e., personality or identity), while a situational attribution is the inference that someone did something because of the situation he or she was in. 

The Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency, at least in Western cultures, for people to prefer making dispositional attributions to situational ones about the behavior of others, and to prefer making situational attributions to dispositional ones about their own behavior.  This makes sense because we’re stuck in ourselves and can’t really factor out our personality, so we focus on the situations we’re facing when describing our motives.  When we think about others, we often don’t take the time to think of all the pressures they face, which is a missed opportunity for empathy. 

Practice understanding how people’s behavior is a product of their circumstances and suddenly many otherwise hurtful things will feel a lot less personally directed at you.  Loved ones who have hurt you probably weren’t trying to hurt you – they were just struggling with their own conflicts.  And even callous or malicious behavior can be reframed as a coping mechanism used by insecure individuals.

2. The grass is always greener on the other side – Psychological Reactance Theory

Decisions, decisions… So many tough choices in life require weighing how we think different alternatives will make us feel.  One thing that many people naively think is that if they make the right choices, they will have no regrets.  A more nuanced view requires acknowledging psychological reactance – the tendency for us to react negatively to situations where we perceive our freedoms or privileges to be threatened. 

For example, reactance occurs all the time in intimate relationships.  While in a relationship, an individual may feel frustrated and yearn for the freedoms of being single.  If those feelings lead to a break-up, that individual had better be prepared for reactance to kick in: the privileges of having the former partner’s company (“all the good times”) will be missed.  In other words, what we focus on depends on what we have, what we gain, and what we lose or lack and can change depending on the situation.  Anticipate your post-decision mental flip-flopping and reap the benefits of stability through foresight.

3. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – Social Comparison Theory

We are social animals and we are programmed to compare ourselves to others all the time.  We live in a society where celebrities and other high status – that is, rich, powerful, good-looking – individuals receive the spotlight of our media’s attention.  It becomes hard to avoid comparing ourselves to these seemingly superior individuals.  Social comparison theory posits that how we feel about ourselves depends on whom we choose to compare ourselves to and how we stack up against them.  Comparisons to those who we perceive as better than ourselves will often make us feel bad, while comparisons to those who we perceive as worse than ourselves can make us feel good. 

Awareness of this tendency can help us transcend automatic judgments in either direction and replace them with mindfulness.  Instead of envying “the lifestyle of the rich and famous”, we can remind ourselves that we are lucky to have everything that we do, for there are countless people worse off than we are who would give anything to have what we do.  Combine this with the insight from the Fundamental Attribution Error to avoid condescension toward those folks and realize that their lot in life is the result of situational and institutional forces.  On the flip side, we must remain humble and not forget that there are always others who have surpassed us in any given domain. 

When we focus on non-materialistic characteristics that really matter, we can remember that we are fortunate to have all kinds of wonderful role models around the world to learn from.  This is about replacing upward envy and downward condescension with admiration and gratitude in both directions.  We can admire both those who have achieved more than us and those who have gotten by with less than us and we can learn from everyone.

4. You are always growing – “The End of History” Illusion

People often think about patience as something externally oriented – a tolerance that we have for others or for frustrating situations – but it can be useful to think about the notion of patience with oneself.  “The end of history” illusion refers to the finding in psychological research that people tend to assume that they are static.  In other words, people tend to operate as though they have reached their “final form” and neglect the fact that they are actually continuing on their developmental trajectory.  This is useful to recognize because, when it comes to skills, it can help counter and alleviate concerns about inadequacy.  Instead of using the mindset of “you either have it or you don’t,” we can remember that many characteristics are skills that can be honed with time. 

Being a beginner at this moment doesn’t preclude being an expert later on.  The illusion that future situations will be different but we won’t also applies to emotions.  Things that seem colossally intimidating or overwhelming at this moment will not necessarily be that way at other times.  Practice “zooming out” and realize that many of the problems that concern you today will seem trivial or even be forgotten after five years.  Or, if they are chronic issues that won’t go away, recognize that you can grow in strength of will, character, and resilience over time.  There is no stage of life where learning and growth are useless.  Embrace both throughout your lifetime!