Learning to See From Another Perspective
This weekend I rented a movie I really enjoyed, the 2003 release House of Sand and Fog. The plot revolved around a home in California that is owned by a young woman, Kathy, struggling with a failed marriage, addictive tendencies, and depression. She is evicted due to non-payment of taxes which she did not rightfully owe. She failed to see the notices sent to her because in her depression she stopped opening her mail. The home is purchased below market value by Mahmoud Behrani, a Persian immigrant to America who had a successful career in Iran and now was working menial jobs to support his family. The purchase and resale of this home would enable Behrani to regain some of the financial and social status which he left behind in Iran. The plot is an exciting and compelling tale of the struggle between these two parties and a series of incidents which lead to a downward spiral and an unpredictable tragedy.
What was so fascinating about the plot was that there was no clear cut hero or villain, these are complex characters with many external influences and internal motivations. Each character acts out of the depths of human selfishness, stubbornness, and greed, but it is also clear that they are at the same time working for noble motives, such as justice or the return of human dignity. The true tragedy is that they do not understand each other.
Human beings, especially under stress, often attribute the behavior of others due to unchangeable characteristics. For example, Kathy sees Behrani as greedy and selfish, simply looking to make money from the deal and take advantage of her misfortune. Behrani sees Kathy as lazy and irresponsible, her inability to maintain ownership of her property is not his problem. However, we also attribute our own behavior to the external circumstances we are subjected to. Kathy understands she was unfairly treated by the justice system, Behrani understands that he needs to support his family and regain the dignity he feels they have lost due to the changing politics of his home country. Certainly it is in our nature to be sympathetic to our own cause, no one can know our internal motivatons as well as we can. This error in perception is so common social psychologists even have a name for it, the fundamental attribution error.
I enjoyed this movie not only because of the exciting plot (go see it!) but also because of the insight into human nature and conflict. With a little reflection, it is easy to see how this attribution error is at work in our own lives. Perhaps we can learn to benefit from seeing from another's perspective, and being sympathetic to their situation and motivations, just as we would to our own self.