The Cost of Giving the Benefit of the Doubt (or the Downside of an Elastic Heart)

warning: lots of speculation in this post and only a little science

heart

Something that preoccupies me these days is the puzzle of sharing psychological science in accessible, interesting ways without undermining its complexity. This is isn’t a new problem – many brilliant people have been working on it for a long time. There’s been substantial progress, even when it’s hard to compete with the attention paid to public-facing psychologists who sacrifice accuracy for various incentives (see Ali Mattu for an excellent example of someone not sacrificing accuracy for engagement). Still, there’s a core challenge that keeps running through my mind that’s not fixable through improving technology or reducing jargon or changing incentives. It’s that there’s rarely (ever?) a one-size-fits-all (or even-a-vast-majority-fits-all) situation in psychology due to variability between situations and people (which Sanjay Srivastava wonderfully captured when he deemed psychology the hardest science).

One way that people get therapeutic-like info out to the public is through the kernels-of-wisdom model (e.g., a tweet, a meme, or Instagram photo with a message like, remember that you’re trying as hard as you can and that’s good enough). This model is appealing because it’s low cost and could be just enough to brighten up someone’s day or spread some insight (by the way, check out Anna Ropp‘s awesome, scientifically-informed Psych Tidbits Instagram account). No one’s under the illusion that it would replace therapy or other bigger life factors related to one’s mental health, and it’s unlikely to harm anyone.

Then, there are more concerted efforts at advice-giving through videos, books, and social media with varying levels of credibility and scientific support. To oversimplify things, the advice is usually get yourself together or stop being so hard on yourself. So, herein lies my concern: I think people are bad at guessing which message applies to them. And while I don’t think a little-bit-of-wisdom type message here and there causes problems, I think there could be a negative cumulative effect of repeated messaging out in the world that people should take one of these two approaches to improve their lives. For example, I’ve seen people who could use the message about not being too hard on themselves absorb the one about getting themselves together and consequently pushing themselves even more to the brink. Meanwhile, there are people who could improve their lives by pushing themselves in certain ways but avoid that by telling themselves they’re just engaging in self-care. And I’m sure I’ve done both at times; it’s human nature to find justifications for the thing we already want to do.

I’m slowly funneling to a specific example, which is this: advice that is often given, including by psychologists, is to give people the benefit of the doubt. This appeals to me in a number of ways consistent with my values – it seems like a nicer, more hopeful, and less angry way to be. It’s consistent with the scientific framework of waiting to interpret something based on evidence instead of intuition. And it’s good advice if you’re the type of person who would otherwise lean toward hostile attributions. On the other hand, consistently giving people the benefit of the doubt has costs that I rarely see acknowledged:

-It means questioning yourself a lot more when you sense that someone intends harm, which can erode your ability to trust your own perceptions.

-Without a belief that you can accurately assess and interpret situations, you can get stuck in a state of inaction rather than moving to resolve an issue.

-It can mean ignoring ambiguous, but existent warning signs that would have removed you from a dysfunctional situation earlier.

-If you’re prone to self-doubt, it may lead you to feel foolish for assuming good will in the first place. This is taxing and can affect productivity even once you’re in a better subsequent situation.

-People often trust cynics more than recurrent benefit-of-doubt-givers, as though they’re closer to truth when they assert their opinions. Cynicism is more likely to (erroneously) signal critical or deep thinking than benefit-of-doubt giving, which is typically linked to being naive or a pushover.

-A nontrivial number of people won’t reciprocate. It’s a good thing to assume the best in people in and of itself sometimes, but it’s also useful to strategically employ it with the hope of improving communication. Unfortunately, there are people who will take advantage of your approach while not extending any charitable interpretations to your behavior.

Despite every single cost I mentioned, I’d still argue that benefit-of-the-doubt giving is worthwhile and generally good advice to follow (perhaps because it’s aligned with my values or simply to justify my own past and future behavior). But, I’ve been reflecting on the costs more recently and thought writing them out might lead to hearing other people’s perspectives — so, I’m eager to hear what others think about the specific example or the broader issue of communicating universal psychology messages (but only if you mean well).*

*I’ll assume you do.

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