Attribution Errors: The Curious Case of Genius Mothers

Mother 1 – SuperMum

We all know the feeling. You are on a long haul flight, there are some children in your vicinity. You are trying to get some work done or watch a movie or enjoy a book or just have a quiet nap.

One of the toddlers has a mild dilemma about something inconsequential. Such as eating a pea that it expected to be a green skittle (That’s not inconsequential, I’d be pretty pissed if my skittle happened to turn into a pea as I ate it!)

The toddler arrives at its unfortunate conundrum and looks scared and begins to cry, and then it gets louder.

The mother seems to completely ignore it. Surely she must notice this toddler bawling we think.

But then suddenly the crying stops and the toddler is smiling and thinking about something else.

Aha. We realise this mother is actually superwoman. She is a God amongst mothers. She knows exactly what she is doing and has mind tricked her baby out of being sad and getting attention and teaching it valuable lessons at this young age and it’s already working.

Free Wonder Woman Vector

When I’m a mum I’m going to be just like her.

I then get confused about the fact I’m a guy and can’t be a mother. Yes, there was that really weird dream once where I was pregnant and all the doctors thought it was amazingly wonderful and kept congratulating me. No one could explain to me how I got pregnant when I had definitely not had sex with any other guys and I don’t have a vagina for them to have sex with anyway. I was quite frustrated by their lack of concern for these details.

Dreamworld medical mysteries aside, I still think I’m going to be a mum just like that lady.

Mother 2 – Evil Mum

However, as well as these awesome all-knowing psychological baby hacking mothers, who are some of the best people on the planet. There are these other awful, disrespectful, stupid and shameful people who may also lurk on your aeroplane.

When their baby/toddler falls or hurts itself or its sister takes its toy. It looks scared and begins to cry, and then it gets louder.

The mother seems to completely ignore it. Surely she must notice this toddler bawling we think.

But then suddenly the crying get’s even louder, and it doesn’t stop. The toddler turns into a crying machine of red-faced teary mess. How does the baby get enough air to keep up this level of crying output? (A second medical mystery in one blog post!)

At this point, the mother may continue to ignore it or she may try to solve the original problem and then try to ignore it. Or she may hold the child in her arms and really try to soothe it. None of these makes a difference because she is a terrible mother and doesn’t know what she is doing. The toddler continues to scream and it’s all her fault.

I will never be a mother like that lady we think!

Vanessa Ives, Mother of Evil - YouTube

The Falacy

These two mothers do the exact same thing, (they may even be the same person). Based on the one single time we observed them and the one piece of information about how their child behaves at that exact point. We conclude that we know a lot of major things about them and their character. We decide if we like them and if they are the sort of person we want to be.

We can come to two drastically different conclusions on the same person who is doing the exact same actions. Our brains are bonkers!

A True Story

I happen to know a case of one mother who had two children.

One child was very bossy and screamed and cried at the drop of a hat. According to the tales passed down her toddlerhood could be renamed as a tantrumhood. On a good day, she might only have 2 or 3 tantrums. She cried when she was hungry, when she was tired, when the store didn’t have shoes in the right size, when another child had an ice-cream from a stall you couldn’t find.

Legend has it that one day she got so worked up that the tantrum reached escape velocity. She completely forgot why she was screaming and just went into another level of continuous screaming that lasted all day. Nothing could stop her, the tantrum had completely taken off. The poor mother (and father) genuinely thought they might need to get her sedated.

The other child was peaceful and calm. It was never rude and hardly ever cried or caused a fuss about anything. He wondered around happily in his own bemused world not getting overly worried about anything. There was the occasional cry when he hurt himself but it didn’t last long.

This lady is my mother. (and I happen to be the chilled out child 😌. If only I had kept my zen toddler abilities for life and hadn’t turned into a neurotic blogger trying to do something with his brain to stop it exploding from too many ideas…. sighes wistfully. Then realises he has misspelt ‘sighs’ and writes about it instead of just correcting it. A curious choice but I’m rolling with it)

What was Happening?

My mother didn’t really do anything especially different with me and my sister. It was largely just the genetics and predisposition. I’m pleased to say I was the quiet one and my mother enjoys telling stories of how great I was compared to my sister as toddlers. But now my sister is a high functioning successful human who is a joy to be around.

Now I’m the troublesome one that keeps doing stupid things like hitchhiking across Kazakhstan or accidentally booking a holiday in North Korea and not mentioning it. Furthermore, there’s the inconvenient regularity with which I nearly kill myself and subsequently require assistance doing basic things like feeding and washing myself 🙄 (thanks mum x).

If you had seen my mother with me as a toddler you’d think she was a genius mother. If you only had one glimpse her with my sister at the wrong time you would think she was an absolute wreck of a mother that shouldn’t have further kids (and thus I would not exist).

Your mind might wander into crazy right-wing idea’s about a policy to seal women’s ovaries who can’t control their kids, Of course, you would never actually want this policy to happen in real life or consider voting for it, but you can at least take some comfort in imagining this nice world. This place of peace where awful mothers don’t exist and children are seen and not heard and aeroplane travel is not divine. You’d never say it out loud, but you’d be thinking it and quietly basking in this messed-up utopia of chill.

My mother was the same human whether she happened to be with me or with my sister. She was also a school teacher and Head of English and Drama and I might say one of the best people I have ever seen with kids. She can entertain one child or 50 with world-class skill. She is pretty amazing if I say so myself.

Depending on the genetic code of the small human my mother happened to be with at a given moment in time, and the recent circumstances leading up to the moment you saw them, your assessment of her could be wildly different.

What We Learn

Firstly – We are idiots – Don’t Trust Ourselves

I hope you learn to distrust yourself and your wild assumptions. It’s not your fault. It’s just evolutionary psychology making quick decisions for us based on bad information.

Secondly – Everyone is an Idiot – Don’t Trust Others

I want you to learn a healthy distrust of others.

When someone says they know everything about a person or something based on one piece of information your alarm bells should go off. You should be asking

  • Is that truly the cause?
    • Perhaps but perhaps not.
  • Could it be attributed to one or many other things?
    • Probably, yes
  • Could there be information that a rational person wouldn’t even stop to consider?
    • Technically speaking there could always be weird stuff that I can’t even conceive of and I try to practice thinking of weird stuff. (The unknown is often more likely than we think)

Even the Pro’s can Make Mistakes

Now I have a lot of respect for Jordan Peterson. In the debate of whether he is great or terrible, I’m on the side who thinks he’s awesome, fantastic and wonderful. Love his books, great speaker etc…

BUT. Even he can still mess up big time. He is only a mere mortal after all.

In his book “12 Rules for Life”, he makes a bold statement about a mother he saw walk past him in an airport whose baby is crying profusely. He explains why the crying is entirely the mother’s fault and he breaks down the whole complex power relationship going on between them based on a tiny glimpse into their lives. A stunning display of just how amazingly smart he is.

The Error

Jordan has tricked himself into a delusional bonkers statement about something he knows nothing about. To be fair, he has dealt with thousands of parents and their children and can make a very quick assessment with a high level of accuracy. The example he gives could be correct. But it might not be.

With great power comes great responsibility. Although he breaks down the specifics, it’s easy for a writer to forget that the reader will not recall all the wise details, so basically the take-home from those few paragraphs is that we basically assume all mothers with a crying baby are idiots could be the stupidest thing he has ever done.

For all we know a million things could be causing this baby to be crying beside the mother being a mild idiot:

  • The toddler has just broken its toe
  • The toddler has a virus and feels like its brain is going to explode out of its eyes
  • The toddler just shit itself
  • The toddler has an allergy to it’s nappy
  • The “mother” is actually a friend just holding it whilst the mother is in the toilet
  • The mother and father have just separated and this “mother” is the new lady in the father’s life, the child has never seen this woman before
  • The child is just bloody mental
  • Things that you would never even stop to consider:
    • The child has just been abducted and these “parents” are escaping the country with it
    • The mother is deliberately pinching the child to draw attention to it whilst her husband smuggles drugs
    • The real parents died yesterday and this “mother” is just a carer
    • Someone just shone a laser in the child’s eyes and it has gone temporarily blind and is very confused and scared about the world right now
    • The child has developed cancer in the brain
    • The child has a birth defect and is in permanent pain
    • The child has discovered Santa Clause isn’t real, the world it knows has ended and it has just reached tantrum escape velocity 

I would like to re-iterate that Jordan Peterson is a total legend and I’m using this example because I respect him and the point is that even awesome people mess up. So you probably are too.

I could easily pick any idiot and find a case of them saying something stupid but this example makes a stronger point. Also, it directly relates to toddlers and mothers and flying experiences so it was rather convenient…


Be less judgemental of things and think of why you might be wrong. Ignore the judgements of others and be a rational scientist instead of just blindly listening to what you hear.

It’s good to assume the best in people until you have really confirmed otherwise. This way you get to live in a world full of mostly cool and lovely people instead of mostly idiots. If it’s just your choice of perception you may as well go with the more enjoyable one. The only person your annoying is yourself.

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