From my days in psychology, there are a few ideas that have always really stuck with me and helped shape my filmmaking. Below is one those ideas; it’s a mistake we often make in how we see other people we make films with or for. Keeping this one idea in mind has greatly helped me tell stronger stories, every time out.
First, the mistake…
There is a principle in psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).
The Fundamental Attribution Error states that when we look to attribute, or find the cause of somebody else’s behavior, we often overemphasize the importance of their personality, and underemphasize the power of the situation or context.
Take these two situations as examples:
1. You walk on set to see the director emerge from around the corner yelling at everybody in site
“Get that crane up faster, we need to be ready to roll in 10 minutes!”
“Where’s my monitor, I need to see what’s happening!”
He then turns to you and says “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Whoa, you think, this guy (or girl) is something else. What an ass.
2. Okay, now imagine you’re a wedding filmmaker. You show up on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, enter a brick house clad in pink frilly things, and find your way through the maze of people to introduce yourself to the bride.
You find her in the back of the house having her make-up done.
“Good morning!”, you yell, “Excited?” She looks at you, smiles meekly, offers up an unconvincing nod of her head, and returns to her make-up.
Oh no, you think, this girl is a total drag. This is not going to be a fun day.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but I can see myself in similar situations many times over the years. We meet somebody, we form an impression quickly, and we assume that’s who they are.
Here’s a super simple, every day example of how the FAE works:
You’re driving home and somebody comes out of nowhere and cut’s you off. We quickly assume that he or she is a jerk for what they just did – that it’s who they are. Now, perhaps he or she just got into an argument with a partner or feels very ill and is trying to get home quickly – the situation they were in could have played a large role. Our natural tendency is to attribute the behavior to the personality of the person, but we don’t give enough consideration to the situation itself.
Now, let’s take this and apply it to the yelling director we talked about at the top. Perhaps he is just an unfriendly, belligerent person or maybe he just got a call from the client and they are pushing up the delivery time while also needing to make cut backs on the budget.
Or our meek and subdued bride. Perhaps the stress of a wedding, of having so many people focus on her, and her nervousness for having to speak her vows in front of a crowd have led her to respond to you in that way.
The point is not to suggest that the behaviors are good or bad, or to make excuses for them. The point is to realize just how much of a role the situation plays in shaping behavior.
Okay, so we have a tendency to undervalue the situation when we look to explain or understand the behavior of others – so what?
Why does this matter? And what could it possibly have to do with filmmaking?
Filmmaking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We work with people and we take images of other people. How we perceive or feel about these people plays such a large part in how we interact with them and how the video of them will feel in the end.
Here are some tips on how you can apply the Fundamental Attribution Error to filmmaking that can help you become a stronger storyteller.
1. Know that the FAE exists. When you’re making a film and interacting with people, especially when things aren’t going well, always try to take a moment and consider the role the situation may have played. I always try and ask questions that would help them share their situation and help you to understand where they are coming from. Asking if they’ve had a busy day or any challenges at work are great cues to allow people to open up and share what could really be the source of their behavior. Once you know, you can help deal with it.
2. Do your research into the people you’ll be working with or interviewing. Get to know who they are truly are, and what their personalities are really like. That way when you show up to that interview or wedding and the person is not behaving in the way you were hoping for, you’ll have the ability to discern whether that is who they truly are OR if it’s the situation. When I am preparing to do an interview, I try to find as many videos and other interviews that person has done to see how they generally respond and feel.
3. Realize the situation you are creating every time you go out and shoot, and how that is such an important factor in the behavior of everybody you work with. If you want an interviewee to be alive and passionate, create a situation that allows them to feel that way – REGARDLESS of their personality. Realize the role the situation plays, then imagine walking into a room with a handful of people watching you, a bunch of bright lights, and knowing that everything you say is going to be recording, reviewed, and analyzed. That would intimidate nearly all of us and therefore significantly change our behavior.
Until we find a way to shoot an interview without cameras, lights, and a crew – we need to always be thinking about ways to create a strong experience of this situation. We make sure to have the interviewee stay outside of the room, with friendly company, so they don’t see us busily setting up. When we bring them in, we then start warm conversation right away and use a gentle tap on the directors shoulder to let them know we are rolling, as opposed to yelling ‘ROLL’ out loud and again making the interviewee more aware of their surrounding.
Here is the the big takeaway:
The situation matters, it plays a HUGE role in shaping the behavior of everybody you work with.
The Fundamental Attribution Error suggests that we commonly undervalue the importance of the situation. It serves as an important reminder to realize and think about the situation or experience we want to create and how that will relate to the behavior we see in everybody we work with.
If you’ve enjoyed this, check out our Storytelling With Heart workshop we have happening July 2015 in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a day full of ideas, just like this one, all focused on telling remarkable stories.
That’s awesome advice Patrick – for filmmaking and life in general! Thanks so much for sharing.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Funny … I do this subconsciously, but never thought about it as a “thing” until now. Nice article Patrick. Thanks for sharing.
That’s what I love about things like this – how practical it is to our everyday life
Love it. Thanks for sharing. Such good advice.
Excellent post Patrick. I have screwed things up pretty good when I was younger making assumptions; wish I had know this then. Maybe I should have stuck with psychology instead of art history in college!
Ha, I am sure Art History also helped with how you see what you do
I really enjoy all the blogs you guys post. There always very insightful and help refresh your memory on other important aspects. I also have my college degree in psychology and have found it helpful in a lot of situations. How we interact with our clients is issues part of how the project goes and if they will refer us. Overall loved it and keep it up
Thanks so much for sharing Dan. Always great to meet a fellow Psych major 🙂
It was supposed to say how we interact with our clients is a huge part of how the project goes and if they will refer us
Hey Patrick, thanks for the excellent insight that trips us up all the time in many settings. Your explanation was easy to understand. Now the tough job of assimilating the implications and putting the learning into practice. Also, I’m looking forward to the SWH workshop here in Minneapolis. It was my Christmas gift from my family. Thanks for all that you and the team are doing to create a passionate and creative community.
Thanks for being a part of that community Dave.
Excited to see you in Minneapolis. Storytelling With Heart will be unlike anything we’ve done before and I’m so excited to get out on the road and meet so many of you.
I love psychology and this a fantastic article on being aware of the people you work with and truly trying to be as understanding as possible. It’s important to see the truth of a situation, not just your knee jerk reaction of it. Good stuff guys!
Thanks for sharing – glad to hear you really enjoyed the post and found it helpful 🙂
Nice and practical. We always work like this and the results are very beautiful. greetings for spain.
Great article as usual
Huh. Such common sense and yet so very often unrecognized by so many folks (myself included, alas). Thank you for pointing out something so generally helpful on AND off the set.
Good thing to keep in mind both on and OFF the set. Thanks for reminding us all of something so common sense & yet so often misunderstood.
Absolutely. This is huge in and out of filmmaking as well
It’s sound like some wise advice my grandmother once gave me.
“Always think the best of someone”
I love how you started with psychology and are now weaving it into your work,
I started with graphic design, photography, motion graphics and 3D.
I find knowledge from each cross pollinate to create work that’s more meaningful and technically sound.
Now I’m learning the psychology and human behaviour side right now 🙂 Any recommended reads P?
As geeky as it is, I love reading my old Uni textbooks, especially the one on social psychology.
Great article, Patrick. I was wondering when you mentioned, “Do your research into the people you’ll be working with or interviewing,” has the Stillmotion team ever taken personality profile tests to better understand each other? If so have you found the exercise helpful?
Great question – we haven’t done that but I am sure it would be beneficial.
What we do certainly make an effort to do is understand the unique personalities and approaches of different team members and work with them, and put them in places that are a good fit. In other words, it goes beyond the role on set as a ‘Director’ or ‘DP’ but it is about considering the director of what type of film, pace, team, etc and trying to always put people in places to succeed, as much as we can
Great article as usual. The situation is really what makes a difference and having shot a couple of wedding films myself, can’t stress enough on its importance especially for the interviews. One thing I wanted to ask here is, how do you go about creating a situation at a wedding? There is limited time, a *lot* is going around and people are probably very new to this idea of getting interviewed for a wedding film (because you know, traditionally it has always been just about documenting a wedding). Where you *have* to get cameras & lights around. One way to lighten the mood could be to bring friends along in the same room and making them chit-chat. However, people are still very cautious speaking their heart out in front of camera.
First of, I would ask what value you get by interviewing people. Is that really story first or just follow what has been done before?
Second, you can always help the situation. Even with a ton of gear, have energy, be passionate, share your excitement. Make sure the first contact and words all matter and know how much they shape the experience. Acknowledge the gear if you can’t hide it, and make it fun. Identify with them and support them in enjoying the experience.
I vote for more future posts on psychology related to filmmaking! 🙂 I was very happy to see this here because after watching one of you workshops on DVD, i realized the importance of a fundamental psychological understanding for making movies. Next stop is a bookshop for a read about socialpsychology. Thank you!
Thanks for the advice and thoughts. Very useful. One of the things that changed my creative mindset was to become a Coach, and get a certification on the matter. With that, i was able to see things and approach creativity in another level, thinking more about what the others also want and desire, by starting to ASK and not assuming or judging. It made a huge diference. Now when i create or film something, i always have that in mind, and see if the situations can be useful to create a new and better reality on my story.
All the best. NV
while all your posts, articles and bts insights are profoundly eye opening, this piece is perhaps the most powerful yet!
if i write anymore, i’ll sound like a fan-boy.
I’m new to the photo/filmmaking world and I’m so appreciative of your blog posts Patrick.
This post especially resonated with me as I’m an emergency/trauma nurse of 19 years. I’m always amazed when nurses give report and they state, “This patient was such an ass” or that “patient’s wife is so grumpy”. Nevermind that the patient was having a heart attack or that pt’s wife was upset because her husband is dying of cancer. Situation is vitally important in life and therefore essential in storytelling.
Looking forward to the workshop in Phoenix in February.
My grandma often told me “Always be kind, you never know the battle someone else is fighting”. Your post has such great wisdom for filmmaking (and for life in general). Thank you for sharing this and for making me smile and remember my sweet grandma.
So excited to attend your premiere and workshop in Minneapolis!
We use our minds to see the real view, we use our hearts to tell movie stories!!!
Very useful article.
“Thinking Global – Acting Local”
Kinda reminds me of the line, “we judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our intentions” but we should look to see what we can do to help first. Usually a kind word diffuses the situation. Great Post! Real insightful!
Hello, of course this paragraph is truly fastidious and I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging.
In other words follow the golden rule.
I’ve found there are very few actual jerks in the world. It’s almost always situational behavior that causes trouble.
Great article as usual