In general, I’m a person who tries — and tries quite hard — to give other people the benefit of the doubt. In general, yes, but especially in my close personal relationships.
In fact, it’s probably part of what my picture of romantic love even is. I had deeply suspicious, overbearing authoritarian parents who were strict disciplinarians. During my childhood, my privacy was constantly invaded, my room searched, and everything they found there was scrutinized.
I was not allowed to defend myself. And my possessions were destroyed, and I was punished for them (even when they were something mundane and harmless like poorly written emo poetry).
It was awful. I grew up deciding consciously that I’d rather be betrayed than make someone I loved feel like I didn’t trust them.
Interestingly, this hasn’t resulted in lots of relationships where I was taken for a ride or anything. True, not every relationship I’ve had has lasted or turned out the way I wanted it to. But that was more a result of poor fit/compatibility than anything else. And I’m in a tremendously good relationship these days. And I have so many fulfilling friendships, with folks who mostly treat me very well.
So what gives? Is it actually a good strategy to give other people the benefit of the doubt if you want a happy life?
Today’s study looked into that.
People Who Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt Are Happier Than Those Who Default to Suspecting Others
This study was able to break participants into three groups:
The first group had a benign attributional style. This meant that they gave other people the benefit of the doubt in all scenarios.
The second group had what they called a hostile attributional style. This meant that they attributed malicious intent in all scenarios.
The third group had what they called an ambiguous attributional style. They thought people were sometimes malicious but not always.
The researchers found the benign attributional group (always gave benefit of the doubt) was happier than the hostile attributional group (never gave benefit of the doubt).
Interestingly, however, the ambiguous attributional (sometimes malicious, sometimes benign) group was also happier than the hostile attributional group.
The pessimistic part of me would be tempted to suggest that the link is backwards. That of course people who are happier can give others the benefit of the doubt. They’re happy, they’ve got that flexibility.
Except… for that other relationship… that those who are contextual about how they give the benefit of the doubt are also very happy. This points me in another direction intuitively (though not empirically), the one that squares very well with what I’ve experienced in my own life. (Because in reality, I’m probably more in that ambiguous attributional group — I tend to base my attributions based on the situation and what I know about the person involved).
I never considered it could be making me happier. I more do it because it’s how I’d like to be treated by others.
Anyway, further research needs to be done — you know the drill. Just an interesting study I came across.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.