Why we need the benefit of the doubt

21 September 2018
By Sam Brown.

People are more willing to adapt their bad impressions of others’ moral characters, for better or for worse, but hold on to the good impressions, a new study has shown...

Participants observed two subjects being paid to repeatedly decide what level of electric shocks to administer to a stranger. The subjects would receive varying levels of additional money if they chose to give the stranger a higher, more painful electric shock.

The observers were regularly asked to rate the moral character of these subjects, state how confident they were in their assessment and predict the subjects’ future choices.

Though the observers were equally capable of determining good from bad moral character, they were much less willing to commit to a negative judgement about the subjects’ morality.

According to Yale researcher Molly Crockett, who led the study, “Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, it is really important that we could update bad impressions if those impressions turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise we might end relationships prematurely, and then we would miss out on potential benefits of a social relationship.”

Great news if you’ve ever done or said something you shouldn’t have. Perhaps it explains why a simple apology can go a long way to mending damage in a relationship. But it’s also good news for those researching a range of psychiatric conditions.

“There are many psychiatric disorders that are characterised by dysfunctional interpersonal relationships,” explains Crockett. “We think this could help us better understand the nature of everyday social dysfunctions, as well as that in disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder, which is characterised by very unstable impressions of others and so difficulties in trusting others.”

Interestingly, it turns out we’re not so hesitant of our opinions in other aspects of life. The team ran a similar study where observers judged the skills of subjects playing basketball, and the team contrasted these impressions with those involved in the moral decision of electrically shocking someone. In the former case, those observing seemed to have no problem in committing to what they thought about a poor performance in front of the hoops.

In ‘An essay on criticism’ Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine”. It seems that this team have been demonstrating that, actually, to forgive is pretty human too. At the very least we’re not so sure how bad our acquaintances really are…

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