Analysis: emotions, attention and information processing are much more strongly influenced by bad things rather than good things

By Joel Walmsley, UCC and Cathal O'MadagainUniversité Mohammed VI Polytechnique, Morocco

Have you ever heard the expression 'never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity'? It’s sometimes called "Hanlon’s Razor" and, in an age when cynicism is fashionable and outright nastiness is the online norm, you might think that it’s just a useful reminder that we ought to be more charitable when trying to figure out the motives of others. But perhaps it reflects something deeper and it may be a necessary corrective for a certain kind of inbuilt prejudice – or, as psychologists call it, a "cognitive bias" – towards assuming the worst about other people’s motives.

Imagine your neighbour is playing loud music that’s giving you a headache. Maybe they’re doing this because they want to annoy you or don’t care about you. Maybe they’ve turned up the volume because they think you might like to hear their music. Either reason could explain the situation. Do you assume the best or the worst? If you’re inclined to assume the worst, you’re probably not alone. However, you may also be exhibiting a bias rather than demonstrating clear thinking.

Psychologists have already shown that we often pay more attention to the negative or dangerous aspects of others’ behaviour than positive aspects. Like many cognitive biases, there may be an evolutionary explanation for this. Perhaps it is better to identify dangerous rather than safe features of our cooperative partners. If someone is a bad apple, it’s good to spot that early and alert others to the danger. The risk of trusting someone who turns out to be bad may generally be higher than the risk of avoiding someone who in fact wouldn’t have caused you any trouble. This can lead to us having a bias that makes us pay more attention to worrying aspects of others’ behaviour rather than positive aspects.

Why are people so quick to attack others' motives online when they have little knowledge of the character of the person they critique?

Biases toward paying more attention to negative or dangerous things are found in a range of psychological states. Emotions, attention and information processing are all much more strongly influenced by bad things compared to good things, something revealed in studies on memory, decision-making and communication. We remember the times we have been punished by others much more than when they have praised us. We’re more likely to alert others to news of danger than to positive news. Even six-month-old infants are more likely to think of a mechanical toy as having intentions if it causes a bad outcome rather than a good outcome.

There’s also a lopsidedness in how we think about agency. We’re more likely to attribute failures in our own case to external causes ("I failed the exam because my neighbour’s dog kept me awake by barking all night!"), but to emphasise the character of others when explaining theirs ("he failed the exam because he’s lazy!").

In light of these findings, we decided to investigate whether there may be a similar bias in examining the motives of others when we know they had several possible reasons for an action. This, we thought, might explain why people seem so quick to attack others’ motives in online forums, for example, when they have little knowledge of the character of the person they critique.

People are inclined to expect others to be primarily acting for the worst of several motives they may have had for an action

To test this, we set up two experiments and 1,300 people took part. Each participant read one of 12 short stories, and we followed it up with some questions designed to examine how they attribute (and evaluate) the motives of the characters in the stories. In each story, the main character has two motives (one good and one bad), but circumstances only allow the character to fulfil one of them. We asked participants which action the protagonists was most likely to undertake – the action that satisfied the good original motive, or the action that fulfilled the bad original motive. We also asked them what they would have done in those circumstances themselves.

We discovered two very interesting results. First, people systematically expected the fictional characters to act in accordance with the worst of the two motives attributed to them. Second, people expected the fictional characters to pursue a worse course of action than they would have chosen themselves. In short, people are inclined to expect others to be primarily acting for the worst of several motives they may have had for an action, and they also think that they would not be so bad themselves.

So what does all this tell us? Well, perhaps that it’s not just charitable to assume the best of others, but sometimes necessary, since we are systematically inclined to err on the side of assuming the worst. Remember this the next time your neighbour’s music is giving you a headache. Even if it seems like they must not care about you, the real reason could be that they think you like it too.

Dr Joel Walmsley is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at UCC. Dr Cathal O'Madagain is Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique, Morocco and a Visiting Researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ