31 December 2007


Many of you are probably familiar with the ABC framework for analyzing behaviors. ABC stands for Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences.

The basic idea is that Behaviors are a feedback system, mainly between Behaviors and Consequences.

A possibly useful way of looking at our responses to our emotions is the other ABC framework laid out by Albert Ellis, which I found in the book, How to Be An Adult by David Richo. "A" stands for activation, "B" is Beliefs, and "C" is consequences. It has to do with the topic of "owning your feelings" and anger. From my perspective owning your feelings means to understand where those feelings come from and responding to them appropriately. Understanding where the feelings come from is the key.

If we take our communication diagram from a previous post, we can group this ABC quite nicely in that framework.

Consider a situation in which you are driving down the freeway minding your own business, when suddenly, someone zooms past you and cuts right in front of you (Activation). You're ticked off, angry that this guy would cut you off, so you make some naughty hand gesture (Consequence). You might say that you are mad because he cut you off. In the ABC framework, the anger is not caused by being cut off, but rather by your belief as to his motives. In your belief system, people who cut you off are jerks.

Would you see it differently if you knew that his daughter was bleeding to death in the front seat and he was rushing her to the hospiital? If that were the case, your feeling might be one of pity rather than anger and you would move out of the way willingly.

This is closely related to the Fundamental Attribution Error (a very common bias), in which we attribute bad motives to others when we do not know their motives. A nice definition from Wikipedia is that people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person's actions depend on what "kind" of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person. Overattribution is less likely, perhaps even inverted, when people explain their own behavior.

This is a variation on the standard communication flow. The difference being that the message is often sent by an action. So when you feel a strong emotion over what someone has done, try to examine your beliefs and preconceptions, then verify with feedback before you respond. People often have very different motives than we attribute to them.