Overestimating Ourselves and Underestimating Others?

Meet The Fockers

Directed by Jay Roach
Produced by Robert De Niro,
Jay Roach,
Jane Rosenthal
Written by Mary Ruth Clarke and Greg Glienna (characters)
John Hamburg and Marc Hyman (story)
James Herzfeld & John Hamburg (screenplay)
Starring Ben Stiller (Gaylord Greg Myron Focker)
Robert De Niro (Jack Tiberius Byrnes, Father of Pamela)
Teri Polo (Pamela Martha Byrnes/ Pamela Martha Focker)
Dustin Hoffman (Bernard Focker, Father of Greg)
Barbra Streisand (Rozalin Focker, Mother of Greg)
Blythe Danner (Dina Byrnes, Mother of Pamela)
Music by Randy Newman
Distributed by USA
Universal Studios
– non-USA –
Release date(s) December 22, 2004
Running time 110 min.
Language English
Preceded by Meet the Parents (2000)
Followed by

Little Fockers (2009)

IMDb profile (Adopted from Wikipedia)

          I recently re-watched Meet the Fockers, a comedy starring Ben Stiller who was acting as the son-in-law, Greg Focker, of a retired CIA agent, Jack Byrnes (portrayed by Robert De Niro). Jack always wanted to protect his daughter and hence did everything that he could to test Greg’s sincerity and honesty. 

          The one thing that stuck in my mind was how much Jack emphasized on the circle of trust. Greg was kicked out of the circle of trust after being suspected of having had a child with another woman, prior to wedding his wife. This little episode in the movie reminded me of the attribution theory that Prof Tan mentioned in his recent-most lecture.

          The attribution theory is a description of the way that people explain the causes for the behaviours of themselves and others. Fritz Heider (1958) proposed that there are two ways that people attribute these causes, namely: internal attributions, and external attributions.

          A good example of a bias in the attribution theory could be seen from Jack Byrne’s natural tendency to distrust people outside of his circle of trust. This was probably due to his training in the CIA where he was taught to instinctively attribute the cause of people’s behaviours to their characters before assessing the entire situation.

          The same phenomenon can be seen to be replicated in normal life events. In the event that one commits the same mistake as another person, a disparity in the assignment of blame will most likely occur. Fundamental attribution error and self-serving attribution could be said to be at work in this case.

          Self-serving attribution is defined as the tendency of an individual to assign self  successes to internal, dispositional factors and blame external, situational factors for self failures. Fundamental attribution error occurs when an individual tends to overestimate the extent to which a person’s behaviour is due to internal, dispositional factors and underestimate the role of situational factors.  When we commit the mistake, it’ll usually be due to “bad mood”, or it is “just not our day”. However, when the fault lies with someone else, it will be due to the person being “incompetent”.

          The instinct to protect ourselves is one that is natural and could be seen even in social situations. Defensive self-serving attributions are good examples of such an instinct. We are wired to rationalise our behaviours in ways that avoid feelings of vulnerability and mortality so that we can survive better in the world. In addition, unrealistic optimism, which is a belief that good things are more likely to happen to oneself than to his or her peers and vice versa for negative events, further serve to help a person avoid those feelings better.

          In a nutshell, I feel that the instinct to survive is a powerful force in the formulation of our thoughts and beliefs which in turn shape our behaviours. In order to survive better, we have the need to feel good about ourselves, hence we are wired to avoid feelings that tend to attack our self-esteem and encourage those that will make us feel more competent and confident to handle the stresses in life.