Do you feel frequently triggered by other people’s actions?
Do you find yourself reading into situations long after they’ve happened, believing that the people involved had unkind motives and intentions? Do you often feel like you need to defend yourself against a world full of selfish, rude, careless, or even malicious people?
If so, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
As a life coach, I find that one of the greatest sources of stress in my clients is the penchant to assume ill intent in others, and I spend a great deal of time working with them to overcome this knee-jerk reaction. Why? Because I’ve found that these assumptions cause them stress, occupy their mental space, decrease their sense of safety in the world, and inhibit their ability to realize their goals. When my clients are equipped with the tools to look for and find the good intentions in others, all of their other aspirations seemingly become more easily attainable.
I didn’t quite understand why this happens, so I devoted myself to researching the topic. I was amazed to find that hostile attribution bias (less formally, negativity bias)—the general tendency to ascribe harmful or otherwise adverse intent to the ambiguous behavior of others—is correlated with a shorter lifespan, poorer health outcomes, decreased happiness, increased stress, decreased pleasure, increased pain, and less happy relationships.
So why are rational, intelligent humans falling prey to such a deleterious tendency? The logic behind negativity bias goes: if we consistently assume the worst, it makes us less vulnerable than if we trusted everyone automatically. People understandably want to see wrongdoing coming rather than be caught off guard by it. Nobody wants to be taken for a fool. But in assuming ill intent, we often end up being the only ones who get hurt.
Unfortunately, humans are evolutionarily hardwired for negativity bias. After all, those who paid more attention to which berries were poisonous than which berries taste the best survived longer. And after thousands of years of evolution filtering out the people who pay more attention to good than bad, our amygdala now uses about two thirds of its neurons to detect negativity and then quickly stores it into long-term memory. In other words, two thirds of the part of your brain that regulates emotions and motivation focuses primarily on the negative. The work of John Cacioppo, PhD, at the University of Chicago shows that the brain reacts with a greater surge in electrical neural activity when the stimuli is negative, “showing how our attitudes are more influenced by bad news than good or neutral news.”
The good news—or should I say bad news to get your amygdala’s attention?—is that there is a way to change the brain’s negativity bias. It’s by training our brains to assume that others have good intent. But before enumerating the reasons why, I want to note that this perspective should never be used as a weapon against marginalized people to undermine or blame them for their experiences of oppression. Someone cannot rid themselves of systemic issues like racism or sexism by assuming positive intent. This is merely a tactic offered for those who wish to use it on an individual level for personal empowerment and is not applicable on a societal level.
With that being said, here are seven reasons why assuming good intent can change (and maybe even save) your life:
1. You’ll be happier.
New research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that you’ll live an overall happier life if you assume positive intent. Participants in the study read ambiguous hypothetical scenarios—for instance, you say hello to a new co-worker on the street, but they pass you and say nothing—and rated from 1 to 10 how much they’d blame that person and how angry they would feel (1 being no blame at all and 10 being total and complete blame). Those who blamed their co-workers more also scored lower on the overall happiness indicator.
2. You’ll live longer.
Research using the Cook-Medley Hostility scale shows that adults with high levels of hostile attribution bias are over 4 times more likely to die by the age of 50 than adults with low levels of hostile attribution bias.
3. Things will taste better, feel better, and hurt less.
University of Maryland Assistant Professor Kurt Gray conducted a groundbreaking study suggesting that assuming good intentions improves our sensory experience. The study involved three tests of pleasure, pain, and taste.
In the first test, two groups of people received identical chair massages. In one group, participants believed the massage was initiated by a computer and in the other group, another human flipped the switch to initiate the massages. The second group rated the massages as more pleasurable.
The second test looked at taste. Two groups of people were given candy with a note attached. One group’s note read: “I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy.” The second group’s note read: “Whatever. I don’t care. I just picked it randomly.” The participants who received the kinder note rated the candy as better tasting than the other group.
The third test looked at pain. It involved three groups who received electric shocks from a “partner.” One group thought they were being shocked without their partner knowing. The second group thought that their partner was shocking them purposefully, to cause harm. And the third group thought their partner was shocking them for their own good, in an effort to help them win money. The third group rated the shocks as less painful than the other two groups.
Kurt Gray, author of the study, summarizes his findings:
“The experience of physical stimuli would seem to depend primarily on their physical characteristics—chocolate tastes good, getting slapped hurts, and snuggling is pleasurable. This research examined, however, whether physical experience is influenced by the interpersonal context in which stimuli occur […] The results confirm that good intentions—even misguided ones—can sooth pain, increase pleasure, and make things taste better. More broadly, these studies suggest that basic physical experience depends upon how we perceive the minds of others.”
4. The people around you will seem, if not become, better.
Behavioral and data scientist Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias explains that the unconscious human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. But our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. That means that almost 11 billion bits of information per second are either deleted, distorted, or generalized. Which 40 to 50 bits that are left over (which facial cues and vocal intonations we pick up on and which we don’t, for example) depend almost entirely on our subconscious beliefs and perceptions.
That means, if we’re in the habit of believing that people have good intentions, we will literally see more good people and more good intentions. We see evidence to validate our pre-existing beliefs, so if we believe the worst, we get the worst. The brain sees what it expects to see.
Additionally, people tend to match our expectations. Just think about it in reverse. If somebody assumes that you have bad intentions, you are more likely to dislike them and therefore behave badly with them. People are more likely to change in the ways you want them to if you’re believing the best in them. As a bonus, the more you look for good intentions in others the more you can ask for them to look for the good intentions in you. Plus, the more you assume positive intent, the better your relationships will be, according to a 1993 Study published in the Journal of Psychology which shows that hostile attribution bias is linked to relational problems in adulthood, including marital conflict/violence and marital/relationship dissatisfaction.
So by assuming good intentions, not only will more good intentions be revealed to you, but you’ll likely actually create more good intentions in the world and improve your relationships.
5. You’ll become more compassionate.
“I’ve found that what most refer to as “assuming” is actually listening to fears and/or indulging laziness. Unfortunately, those who listen to fears tend to be too afraid to ask the questions that can clarify their assumptions because they’re afraid to find out that their assumptions are correct—even though their assumptions are often incorrect. So they continue to assume what isn’t true.” ~ Charles Lyell
Sonder—a word invented by John Koeing in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, is defined as the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Believing that someone is a selfish or bad person who intends harm is quite a lazy explanation. It lets us off the hook for having to reckon with the unimaginable complexity of that person’s life.
When we practice checking our accusatory assumptions, it forces us to imagine more nuanced reasons for why people do the things they do. And since we can never fully feel or understand someone else’s experience, the best thing we can do to strengthen our compassion for others is practice imagining. When I’m feeling upset by someone else, my favorite question to ask is, “what must be going on in their world such that they did this thing?” I assume that if someone has hurt me, that must be because they are hurting, perhaps in some invisible way that maybe even they can’t understand.
Negativity bias makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others. But over time, practicing assuming and looking for the good in people makes us more compassionate, which, according to a 2019 study from the University of Oulu in Finland, has found that greater levels of compassion are correlated with greater well-being, more happiness, a positive mood and social connections, and overall increased satisfaction in life.
6. You’ll be less annoyed and less stressed.
The ability to check our assumptions and question our thoughts decreases the likelihood that we have to spend hours or days stressing and ruminating about someone else’s perceived ill intent. Plus, practicing compassion for others is one of the best ways to activate your ventral vagal nerve, which is like pressing the break on your sympathetic nervous system (the branch of your nervous system responsible for the fight or flight stress response). Well-being expert Dr. Rick Hansen writes, “seeing good intentions amidst bad behaviors can, ironically, help you feel less affected—less stressed, irritated, or worried—by other people.”
7. It’s the rational thing to do.
“If you frame everything as a fight, it’s corrosive to the human spirit and everyone feels less safe. If you get in the habit of seeing good intentions, maybe you’ll miss a few bad intentions and think better of a few people who don’t deserve it, but the world will feel like a safer place whether you’re right or not, but I think you’ll be right more often than you realize.” ~ Deborah Tannen, Why Conversations Go Wrong
We all too often fall prey to the cognitive fallacy of assuming that if we feel something, it means the other person meant for us to feel like that. This is a false equivalence and often results in unnecessary misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
In his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You are Not, neuroscientist and author Robert A. Burton pokes holes in the common belief that we can actually determine when our thoughts are correct. According to him, the feeling of certainty is just a sensation that “is most likely a biologically-based, involuntary, and unconscious process that cannot be trusted as a reliable marker that we are right, […] Because this ‘feeling of knowing’ seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.”
This means that our feeling of certainty that someone intended harm doesn’t actually mean that they did.
Only about 6 out of 100 people have a personality disorder characterized by ego-centrism and low empathy. Rarely do the people you know and love deliberately cause harm. As discussed earlier, we are evolutionarily wired to give greater weight to negative experiences instead of positive ones, and two-thirds of our emotional processing power is dedicated to perceiving and remembering negativity. This means that we are generally more likely to ascribe negative intent where there is none than to ascribe positive intent where there is none. So assuming positive intent is not only the healthier, but also the more rational thing to do.
So what do we do?
In today’s world, having a constant negativity bias is no longer necessary for, and is actually often counterproductive to, our survival.
Luckily, there is a way to change the brain’s negativity bias: by training our brains to look for good intentions. This is not toxic positivity, which Kendra Cherry defines as “belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset,” but rather, overcoming our brain’s deleterious tendency to see ill intent where there is none.
First, we do this by identifying when we are making an assumption that someone has ill intent, and, as Byron Katie suggests, asking ourselves, “can I be absolutely certain this is true?” When and if the answer is “no,” we either 1) ask directly and unassumingly for clarification or 2) imagine a scenario in which that person had good intent, and actively look for evidence that that’s true. To be clear, “this doesn’t mean you put up with an abuser or a toxic relationship. It means when you are in a relationship with someone who cares but doesn’t always get it right according to your grand plan of the way the world should be, you stop assuming their intentions (especially if they’re negative), you give them the benefit of the doubt, and when in doubt, you ask.” ~ Carrie L Burns
Secondly, when we do see positive intent in another’s actions, we need to focus more conscious attention on it. “Science claims that for a positive experience to get into our long-term memory we should hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds, if not it disappears,” says Eva Berkovic. Over time, with practice, our minds will eventually adjust and start automatically allocating more energy to perceiving benevolence.
By understanding that no matter how certain we feel that we’re right, we are often wrong in our negative interpretation of others’ behavior, by actively questioning our assumptions and telling ourselves a more forgiving, compassionate story about others’ behavior, and by actively paying more attention to the good we see in the world than the bad, the overwhelming research shows that we end up leading longer, happier, healthier, richer lives.
Even though we may be wrong sometimes, that game is certainly worth the candle in my book. I would much rather be happy and healthy than right. And chances are, when you assume good intent, you will be right more often than not.