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What Is Misattributing Causation? | Psychology Today

It is time for part three of my series on the thoughts we have when we get mad. Part one was on catastrophizing (and how it’s the worst thing you can ever do). Part two was on overgeneralizing (and why you should never do it). For part three, I want to write about misattributing causation; the tendency to assign blame incorrectly when bad things happened. 

Misattributing causation can look a couple of different ways:

Sometimes, we literally blame the wrong people for things.  You come home from work and the floor is sticky, and you immediately assume one of your kids spilled something.  You get mad because they are being irresponsible or should have cleaned it up better or are always doing this sort of thing, or whatever.  But then you find out, the sticky spot was not their fault.  It was your spouse and she is just about to clean it up.

Sometimes, though, we might blame the right people but we misattribute the reason why it happened.  So imagine you are driving home from work and another driver cuts into your lane right in front of you so that you need to slam on the breaks in order to keep from hitting them.  You saw them do it so you know who did it, but you jump to conclusions about why they did it.

It is going to be scary regardless, and it makes sense to be mad at the person no matter what their motivation.  If they did it on accident, it is bad.  But if they did it on purpose, it is really bad and even more anger-provoking.

People who tend to misattribute causation usually assume the latter.  If there are multiple ways of interpreting the meaning of a behavior (and there usually are), they tend to assume the worst possible interpretation.  “That person cut me off on purpose” when it was actually an accident, “my kids left the milk out again” when it was actually your spouse, or “where did my car keys go” when they didn’t actually go anywhere- you just misplaced them. 

This tendency to misattribute causation is important because it is associated with a host of negative consequences related to anger.  People who think this way are more likely to get angry than others, express that anger in less healthy ways, are more likely to have vengeful, aggressive thoughts, and are more likely to get into arguments and experience other problems as a result of their anger (Martin & Dahlen, 2007; 2011; Martin & Vieaux, 2013). 

How do you best deal with it? Here are four ways.

  1. When bad things happen, think about the most likely cause.  Did the driver really see you and pull out anyway or was it an accident?  It scary and upsetting regardless, but bad things become worse in our minds when we ascribe such negative intentions to the perpetrator.
  2. Better yet, try to reserve judgment until you know the cause.  If you come home to a mess in your kitchen, you may think it is your kids (and you’re probably right), but find out for sure before you get angry at them.
  3. Consider your role in the problem. It is fair to say that sometimes, maybe often, people are quick to blame others because they want to deflect the blame from themselves. Thinking “where did my keys go” is demonstrably different from “where did I leave my keys.”
  4. Practice.  I write this each time but shifts in thinking like this take time.  People spend entire lifetimes developing their thinking patterns so it’s going to take time to undo them.

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