Here’s an underrated mental health tip – try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
The opposite approach isn’t a good idea, as I hope will become clear in a short personal anecdote.
Some years ago, I was at the counter in a packed hotel bar, about to order a drink. Another customer, a man I hadn’t seen before, said to me, in an irritated tone: ‘For God’s sake, there’s no need for that, no need at all.’
Seeing my puzzled expression, he explained. ‘That young guy behind the bar gave me the wrong change, tried to keep a few euro for himself until I said it to him. And you know, I was originally going to leave a tip. No need for that kind of thieving, no need at all’. He walked off, exasperated.
Did the barman deliberately give him the wrong change? Well, it’s possible, but it seemed very unlikely to me. He didn’t look self-conscious. He didn’t look like someone who had been rumbled. No, he looked just like all the other bar staff, in that he was rushed off his feet, trying to serve the army of people on the other side of the counter. In a busy environment like that, staff are going to make the occasional mistake.
People in bars and shops have often given me the wrong change – sometimes too little, sometimes too much. Mistakes happen, it’s normal.
What was interesting about the man’s disgruntled response, however, wasn’t so much that he thought it was deliberate. It was that it never seemed to dawn on him that it might have been a mistake. The barman tried to rip him off – end of story.
The man in this particular case appeared to have what’s known as a hostile attributional or explanatory style – that is, when you interpret and explain others’ behaviours as having a hostile intent, even when the behaviour is ambiguous or even benign.
Different people interpret the world differently. Different people have different explanatory styles – some people explain events in a positive way, some in a negative way. Some people are inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt; some aren’t.
What about you? Do you try to give others the benefit of the doubt? To answer that question, consider the following scenarios:
- Someone you know passes you on the street and doesn’t say hello.
- You have an appointment with an important person. When you arrive, the secretary tells you the person isn’t there – they took the day off.
- You walk past a bunch of teenagers and you hear them start to laugh.
- You’re supposed to meet a new friend for lunch but s/he never shows up.
- You leave a phone message for a friend. A week later, they haven’t called you back.
In a recent study, 707 participants were asked how they would respond to these situations. How much did they think the other person acted intentionally? How much blame did they attribute to them? How angry were they? Participants also filled out a separate questionnaire where they rated their own happiness levels.
The researchers found that people who always or sometimes gave others the benefit of the doubt were happier than those who always blamed others.
Does this mean that seeing others in a negative light makes us less happy? Or is it that unhappy people are just more likely to make a negative interpretation in the first place?
The researchers can’t say, but it’s fair to assume it’s a bit of both. When we’re unhappy, we’re more likely to focus on potential negatives. At the same time, it’s obviously bad for your mood if you routinely see others in a negative light.
Giving people the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean you should rationalise bad behaviour or adapt an unrealistically happy-clappy view of the world. It just means taking a step back and considering alternative and more benign explanations, rather than jumping to negative conclusions.
Giving people the benefit of the doubt is something we can practice in our daily lives. If you don’t do so already, why not give it a go?
(First published in Southern Star on 22/6/2023).