What Happened When I Spent a Week Assuming Only the Best in Others
I never considered myself to be a negative person. In fact, if you had asked me whether I assumed the best in people, I would have said, “Almost always.” But was this really true? How I respond to the behavior of others and what actually goes through my mind can often be at odds. I find myself reading into situations long after they’ve happened, adding layers of meaning that might not even be there.
That’s hostile attribution bias, the tendency to assume malevolence in the intentions of others. You get offended when someone bumps your shoulder while stepping out of the elevator or when someone snags the last two jars of peanut butter on the shelf as you’re reaching to grab one. But new research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests you’ll be happier if you didn’t. Participants in the study read hypothetical ambiguous scenarios — for instance, you say hello to a new co-worker on the street, but they pass you and say nothing — and rated how much they’d blame that person and how angry they would feel. The people with higher scores were less happy than those with lower ones.
Since I’ve been in the habit of setting weekly challenges for myself, I decided to spend seven days assuming the best in others. How hard could this be?
Extremely hard, it turns out. Here’s how things went.
One day, a friend didn’t reply to my text. This is something that happens to just about everyone, but I only now saw how it threatens our assumptions about courtesy and friendship. When it happened to me, a string of thoughts began unwinding in my head. The first was sympathetic. “Oh, she must be in the middle of a big work project.” The second was a little suspicious. “That’s weird, normally she would have replied by now. I hope everything is okay.” The third was veering into neuroticism. “I hope she’s not offended by something I said.” The fourth thought kicked things into full-blown resentment. “Jeez, this is immature. She should have just told me she was annoyed at me and we could have hashed it out like adults.”
Four days later, she texted me to say she’d been fired from her job.
I’m an asshole.
Another time, my partner was late for dinner. Granted, he’s a busy guy and stuff at work can happen. But we had made special plans. After about 20 minutes, I began to stew. I summoned up all the possible reasons why he was late, and none of them included, “He stopped to buy my favorite ice cream.” Half an hour in, I was livid. Why couldn’t he respect my time? When he finally arrived, we had a massive argument, after which I sulked in silence. Finally, I calmed myself down enough to listen to his explanation: He had offered to drive a bereaved co-worker home. On the way, his phone fell down the side of his seat and he didn’t want to risk trying to reach for it.
Yep, I’m definitely an asshole.
Why is it that we so often assume the worst in people? I asked this question to some of my colleagues, who offered responses such as, “If they think you believe them just once, they’ll try to get away with it again and again” and “It’s important to know you’re ‘onto’ them. It’s a matter of self-respect.” The logic goes: If we default to assuming the worst, it makes us less vulnerable than if we trusted everyone automatically. Nobody wants to be taken for a fool.
But in assuming ill intent, the only person this hurts is you. It occurred to me how often I had rewritten spinoffs of stories in my brain that never even existed. I could have used that time and energy on something, anything, more productive.
Granted, it’s more difficult to assume the best in others if your relationships have been hardened by time, injury, and unmet expectations. But if you’re committed to maintaining and cultivating the relationship, it’s crucial that you try. By countering your negative internal dialogue, you become more compassionate. You begin to lean on more logical explanations, taking into account other people’s different circumstances. That long-delayed text response? Your friend was probably dealing with a toddler with a fever or was at an emotional low. It very likely had nothing to do with you.
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I realized that assigning blame and malicious intent is a habit, and, like with all habits, requires conscious effort to break. It takes practice to figure out how to interpret people’s actions, particularly if they have an ambiguous communication style. But when you begin to assume good intentions by default, you feel more empowered and self-confident. You have control over how you choose to respond to any given situation. You can embrace the possibility that no one is intentionally trying to hurt you. Sure, there are inconsiderate and thoughtless people out there, but rarely do the people you know and love deliberately cause harm. If your mission is to seek and find proof of malice everywhere, then you give up the power of resilience, and that’s where power lies.
Instead of letting your anxieties fester, talk to people about their ambiguous behavior. Practice assuming the best in people, particularly those you know and love. It may not make the world more peaceful, but to you, it will at least feel that way.