The Benefit of the Doubt: Going Beyond First Impressions
“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
From behind the wheel, the woman spotted the little girl by the sidewalk, her mitten hands curled around a cardboard sign. People holding cardboard signs were part of the Chicago landscape but in this quiet suburb where purple lilac trees lined the streets and school crossing guards know all the children by name, the little girl stood out.
The girl looked to be near her daughter’s age - seven and now sitting in the backseat of her station wagon. She did not appear to be homeless: face well-scrubbed, hair donned in neat pigtails, clothes neatly pressed.
She hadn’t intended to stop. But then the woman saw the message scrawled on the cardboard sign. She gunned the gas pedal and wildly swung her car all the way from the left lane until she was a few feet from where the girl stood holding the sign.
“I’m lost. Take me home to 315 N. Yale.”
She ignored the blaring horns and hurried out of her car to stand in front of the girl.
“Come.” She said gently, holding out her hand. “I will take you home.”
There was a small hesitation, then the little girl went willingly with the woman. True to her word, the woman delivered the girl safely to her mother.
The little girl was me. And the woman, years later, shared this story with someone we both knew, a favorite teacher.
I think back on that day, and I can only imagine all the things swirling inside the woman’s head. How easy it was for her to rush to judgment. Instead she showed kindness, not only to me but towards my parents who were still learning to navigate their newly adopted country.
Another person who showed great restraint in reserving judgment was Jay.* Jay was my boss, and the work assigned to our team often put us in a contentious situation with a number of our business partners. What kept team morale intact and allowed us to function cohesively and collaboratively were the three words he lived by.
“Assume positive intent.”
That’s the gift you can freely give another. The benefit of the doubt.
Modern life is pushing us to decide how we will relate to others based on their reputation rather than their character.
Even before meeting them, we already have a formed opinion about them based on their Facebook posts, and other readily available information from online search results. Information that may not accurately or fairly represent the person.
Due to information overload, we tend to take narrow slices of our experience with a new person or situation, and based on that, we draw lasting conclusions about them. And once formed, this first impression is rarely altered despite new information.
This is what psychologists called rapid cognition, or “thin-slicing.” Thin-slicing is making quick decisions on small amounts of information. The majority of us came to know the concept of “thin-slicing” through Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.
The speed in which we move in modern life rarely allows us to know people well enough to know their character. And when we don’t know someone at this deeper level, there is no emotional investment.
We don’t care enough to go beyond the superficial conversations, the casual meet ups for drinks and weekend recreational activities, to work toward understanding the markedly different viewpoints and the quiet struggles behind the smiles. We are not invested.
And when we are not invested, we feel less empathy, less tolerance, less kind. The things we need most from each other.
So there is no time more important than now for you to live in the way that no one believes the lies that are told about you.
And while we work our way back to connect with each other in the way humans seem to intuitively know during times of natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina) and national crisis (9-11, Boston Marathon), this very moment, we can afford to give one another one kindness.
The one kindness – the one gift we can all afford to give our fellow human beings - is the benefit of our doubt.
[*Name was changed.]