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

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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.

Can Offensive Political Speech on Campus Cause Trauma?

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I went on Half Hour of Heterodoxy to talk about student reactions to political extremists giving speeches on college campuses. I was grateful for Chris Martin‘s interesting questions and wanted to expand on a few of the discussion points.

What’s the definition of trauma?

The DSM-5 defines trauma as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: 1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s), 2) witnessing, in person, the event(s) or the event(s) as it occurred to others, 3) learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend, 4) work-related repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic event(s).

Do political extremists cause trauma when they speak on campus?

DSM-defined trauma is unlikely to occur at these events unless there’s actual or threatened violence involved (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). It’s important to avoid watering down the term trauma through misuse in situations where it doesn’t apply. However, I don’t think fear of acute trauma typically drives the opposition to political extremists on campus. I think the fear is more commonly about political extremists using campus appearances to spread discriminatory beliefs that perpetuate social inequities. The sense of threat comes from historical knowledge about the uses of propaganda, and it’s amplified when violent acts are carried out that reference this propaganda (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). Some political extremists explicitly state that they’re trying to recruit college students to their causes (1, 2) and have developed strategies for persuading people through coded language (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Despite trauma being an unlikely consequence of these speeches, there is a robust literature showing that experiences of discrimination are related to worse mental and physical health (e.g., 1, 2, 3)* and that people can have physiological stress responses when exposed to discrimination and racism.** For example, it’s been proposed that these types of stress responses contribute to birth outcome disparities between Black and White women in the United States (e.g., 1, 2). 

What should universities do?

1) Actions should be individually-tailored for the particular university and involve discussion with students and faculty, instead of something pushed top-down from administrators. Include mental health experts in these conversations.

2) Express support for faculty and students. Even if you disagree with their viewpoints, don’t ridicule students or erroneously reduce all of their concerns to an inability to handle differences of opinion. Students are exposed to politically extreme views in spaces outside of campus speeches, and that exposure often shapes their beliefs about the particular speaker and the potential for harmful societal consequences. It’s not helpful to deride students who respond by using their time and resources to organize nonviolent protests to combat social inequality.

3) Don’t equate mental health issues with weakness or confuse therapy with avoidance. Normalize discussions about mental health on campus. University-wide e-mails are sent around about flu shots and other medical issues – it can be helpful to do the same with mental health information and resources. When people seek counseling, the first step involves determining whether the person has a mental health problem. If a student refers to something as trauma when it’s not, therapists provide them with that valuable corrective feedback. There’s also a misconception that therapy is about unconditional reassurance or hand-holding, but it’s actually all about empowering people to face their problems skillfully.

4) Be precise in stating your rationale for hosting speakers on campus. I doubt that many university administrators think there is educational value in speeches by people like Richard Spencer. Usually, they’re motivated by the importance of upholding free speech principles and are legally obliged to host speakers in public spaces. I’ve heard some arguments that there are educational and mental health benefits to having political extremists on campus (e.g., via exposure to “new and challenging” ideas). The free speech argument is compelling, but the educational and psychological growth arguments are not. I’m not aware of any evidence that exposure to inaccurate, dehumanizing ideas about groups of people confers psychological benefits (if you are aware of such research, please share it with me). For example, some students have opposed Ben Shapiro speaking on their campuses. As I have written about, he spreads false information about suicide and trans people (also watch Natalie Wynn refute Shapiro’s claims). It’s hard to comprehend how learning inaccurate ideas, which are used to restrict rights (e.g., 1, 2), add value to students’ lives. When someone argues that accuracy and education don’t matter when it comes to protecting free speech, I find that much more convincing and honest.

A recent video by Natalie Wynn included a nuanced description of her response to Ricky Gervais telling transphobic jokes in his comedy specials. She made it clear that the thing that bothered her wasn’t that he’s allowed to tell those jokes (she’s a huge proponent of free speech) or even that the jokes are unoriginal, unfunny, or offensive. Rather, she’s afraid that he’s spreading untruthful ideas that make the world a harder place for people like her (she’s a trans woman). Her descriptions reflect the kind of complexity and clarity needed for productive conversations about the psychological effects of these types of speech.

*This paper describes the complexities of measuring discrimination in research.

**Individual differences between people and situations determine the extent to which any particular person will be affected by an event.

Information & Resources

Accurate information about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder is available here.

For student organizer perspectives, listen to Hoai An Pham here (episode 10) and read Maximillian Alvarez’s article here.

Chris Martin‘s Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast has featured guests with a variety of opinions on free speech and other campus-related issues.

Two particularly thoughtful academics who write about campus free speech issues are Aaron Hanlon and Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve learned a lot about First Amendment litigation from reading work by Ken White and FIRE.

I co-wrote a blog post on college mental health that you can access here.

Acknowledgments

In preparation for the podcast, I reached out to three people with relevant expertise and experience: Dr. Yessenia Castro, Linda Gordon, and Carly Marten. They generously shared research, articles, resources, and their thoughts with me. I’m thankful for how much they deepen my understanding of these issues and for all that they do to make the world a better place.