The Importance of Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Oct 17, 2022
giving the benefit of the doubt

A few months ago, I was at a friend's housewarming party. As fully grown adults, we played on the slip n slide, basked in the sun, shared food, and talked. 

I didn't really know most of the other guests. They were part of a big social group my friend had recently connected with. This group included some really interesting, talented people...who also happened to be a full generation younger and a whole lot more hipster than I am. 

Somehow, we got on the topic of phone etiquette, and some real differences in our world views became glaringly obvious. The Gen Z-ers were pretty resistant to the idea of calling someone out of the blue and downright horrified at the idea of leaving a voicemail. Meanwhile, myself and the others in my generational camp held a fundamentally different view. Spontaneous calls are absolutely acceptable. (I'll just screen the call if I don't want to talk). And, with only the rare exception, I won't call you back if you don't leave a voicemail because I'll assume it's a pocket dial. I also use punctuation in texts; it is written correspondence, after all. I'm guess I'm old school like that. 

This is such a silly example of how we all move through the world operating on different assumptions. Still, it drives home an important point. When we assume that everyone plays the game of life by the same rules we do, we're opening the door for a lot of hurt, confusion, annoyance, and awkwardness. 

Think about what might happen when two opposing beliefs collide. Consider these examples.

  • Beliefs: Relationships should be easy. v. A relationship is its own, constantly evolving entity that requires work. 
  • Beliefs: Money is scarce and may run out. v. Money is a renewable resource. I can always get more.
  • Beliefs: Things usually work out for the best. v. Bad things happen unless you are prepared or prevent them.
  • Beliefs: People basically want the same things. v. _______ people (fill in any group or community) are _______ (fill in a negative judgment).


Fundamental Attribution Error

Our brains take a lot of short cuts to speed up their information processing capabilities, and these short cuts lead to some glitches or biases in the way that we think. One of these biases is called the fundamental attribution errorThis bias causes us to attribute another person's negative behavior to their character. In contrast, we attribute our own negative behavior to environmental factors. For example, a driver who cuts you off is an inconsiderate jerk or a terrible driver. When you do the same thing, however, it was just an accident or you just didn't see them in your blind spot. That's the fundamental attribution error in action.

And our brains flip the script when it comes to positive stuff. I got that promotion because I'm hard working. She got that promotion because of affirmative action or because she's friends with the boss. 

Knowing that we all make this error and that we'e all moving through the world with different beliefs - rules and assumptions about how the world works and how to behave in it - makes it incredibly important to give people the benefit of the doubt. 


The Benefit of the Doubt

I can't think of a single behavior that is 100% inherently good or bad. It really depends on the context - the surrounding circumstances. So we can't necessarily trust our knee-jerk reaction to someone's actions, especially if the motives behind those actions would make a difference in how we feel about them. Now, I'm not advocating for excusing unacceptable behavior. I am, however, cautioning that we need to do a little work of our own before we deem someone's behavior as unacceptable or trust our initial reaction.  

On the surface, I might say that being rude is an unacceptable behavior, but that's an oversimplification that relies on my mind's short cuts. First, we need to pause to ask if that behavior is inherently rude, meaning that objectively, on its own, it is a rude behavior. If we dig into it, we probably have to admit that it is not. It's the meaning we ascribe to the behavior that makes it rude. We can draw on any number of cultural references to illustrate this. For example, in the U.S., giving someone a thumb's up means it's all good or I'm on board. The same gesture is considered an insult in some other countries, though. So thumbs up isn't objectively rude. It depends on the meaning or the context. In other words, my beliefs about what that gesture means matter. 

So, before we deem someone's behavior as unacceptable, we need to pause to examine our own beliefs and consider what theirs might be. Then, we can move forward accordingly. 

If we share beliefs, then we next have to consider whether the fundamental attribution error may be at play. Is their action due to a character issue - they're a jerk, inconsiderate, or selfish - or is it possible that they are basically good but something may be pulling them off course? Would it make sense that they could be very stressed out? That they have something else going on that you don't know about? That they were actually trying to be thoughtful and just misjudged how their action would land for you? Considering how environmental or external circumstances may be influencing them is one way to give them the benefit of the doubt. And doing so may cut down on a lot of unnecessary strife. 


The Benefit of the Benefit of the Doubt

You may initially think that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is all about them. You're doing them a kindness by not assuming their character is the cause of some negative behavior or even considering that their behavior isn't actually even negative. (My Gen Z friends will need to understand that me not calling them back without a voicemail isn't an insult, and I need to understand that calling them out of the blue may be really uncomfortable for them). They might see my behavior as negative while I see it as completely normal and natural. We must check our own assumptions and attributions at the door. 

If we go deeper, though, giving someone the benefit of the doubt is actually better for you. Making the most generous assumption possible about why others do the things they do, with the caveat that there is at least some evidence to support that generous assumption, is going to influence your emotional state. The less time we spend in an angry or hurt state, the better, right? 

Consider my friend we'll call Kevin. When I first met Kevin, I thought he was brilliant and...I'm not sure. He'd make comments in such a deadpan way that it was hard to tell if he was joking or serious. I gave hm the benefit of the doubt and assumed that - at least until there was strong evidence to the contrary - he was joking. In that case, he was pretty hilarious, and we were able to be friends for years. If, however, I'd taken his initial comments as rude, there's no way our friendship would've grown, and I'd have probably spent more time than I'd like stewing on being offended. 

Or how about this example? A friend of mine was unable to be with her kids, whom she adores, while they had an awesome day at the pumpkin patch with their dad. He sent photos of their fun throughout the day. Each time she got a photo, she got a little pang in her heart because she was missing out. She had a choice. She could assume the photos were a dig at her. Her family had wanted her to go with them, after all, but she had other plans. Or she could assume positive intent. While painful in some ways to get the pictures, she gave the benefit of the doubt and assumed the photos were an effort to make her feel included not excluded. Because she went with the latter, she had a much better day. 


Get a Handle On Your Beliefs 

Join us for our next live Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop, Beyond Belief: The Psychology of How Beliefs Are Formed and Why They're So Hard to Change, on Tues. October 18, 2022 at 12 CST.  Whether you can join us or not, I hope that you'll carry forward the intention to give others the benefit of the doubt until they definitively prove it's not justified.  I'd venture that you'll feel better, and your interactions will be just a little more positive, too.


"Give people the benefit of the doubt, over and over again, and do the same for yourself. Believe that you're trying and that they're trying. See the good in others, so it brings out the best in you."
 - Liz Newman


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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