A study led by Yale University has found that while a good impression makes a big difference in how we perceive others, most of us are willing to adjust our opinions to accept people who have behaved badly or left a bad impression.
The researchers explained that this level of flexibility in judgement helps to explain how humans can be so forgiving, and also why they sometimes stay in bad relationships.
“The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness,” said study senior author and psychologist Molly Crockett. “Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise, we might end relationships prematurely and miss out on the many benefits of social connection.”
The study was focused on more than 1,500 participants who observed the choices of two strangers while they faced the moral dilemma of whether or not to inflict painful electric shocks on another person in exchange for money.
The “good” stranger usually refused to shock another person for money, but the “bad” stranger was typically more interested in maximizing their profit. The volunteers reported on their impressions of the moral character of both strangers and also on how confident they were about these impressions.
As expected, the participants rapidly formed positive impressions of the good stranger and were highly confident in these judgements. On the other hand, the volunteers were far less confident that the other stranger was truly bad, and were found to quickly and easily change their minds.
For example, the bad stranger occasionally made a generous choice and the impressions of the participants improved almost immediately – until they witnessed the stranger’s next transgression. The researchers believe that this judgement pattern sheds new light on why people sometimes hold on to bad relationships.
“We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt,” said Crockett. “The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships, even when partners sometimes behave badly.”
Study lead author Jennifer Siegel added, “The ability to accurately form impressions of others’ character is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships. We have developed new tools for measuring impression formation, which could help improve our understanding of relational dysfunction.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.