Human mind is built for maintaining social relationships

17 Sep 2018

We need to be able to let people off when they behave badly, because they might be helpful to us in the future, the authors of the new research suggested. The same is not true when people behave well, the researchers found.

The flexibility we have in our approach to people who hurt us or others might be able to explain why people find themselves staying in bad relationships.

“The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness,” said Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, senior author of the paper. “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.”

To carry out the study, researchers conducted a range of experiments aimed at understanding how people judge others. More than 1,500 people watched two strangers who faced a dilemma: should they continue inflicting electric shocks on a person in exchange for money. The “good” person refused the deal and the “bad” one accepted.

Subjects were then asked what they thought of those people and their moral character, and how sure they were about those feelings.

The researchers found that the subjects very quickly decided that the character who refused the money was good, and said they were sure about it. But they were far less confident that the bad stranger was really bad.

And they seemed quick to change their mind. If they saw the bad person do something good, for instance, they’d very quickly change their view – until they saw their next transgression.

That in turn could help explain why people stay in bad relationships, for instance, as well as casting light on the human condition.

“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.”

The same research could eventually shed light on problems such as psychiatric disorders that make this kind of thinking difficult.

“The ability to accurately form impressions of others’ character is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships,” said Jenifer Siegel, an Oxford doctoral student and lead author of the paper. “We have developed new tools for measuring impression formation, which could help improve our understanding of relational dysfunction.”

 

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