The Benefit of doubt

Almost all assumptions I have made about people at first glance have turned out to be wrong. That statement might say something of my people-reading abilities, but more accurately, it tells of the weakness of making snap judgement based on outward criteria such as race, grooming, socio-economic status, size, age, facial expressions, speech, etc.

To be sure, assumptions provide a useful shortcut to process and categorize the mammoth amount of information we get daily. “There is no expedient to which a man would not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking”, says Sir Joshua Reynold.

However, when it comes to people, the best of us have cultural biases that put blinders on how we perceive others who are different from us. One of my favorite lines in one my favorite movies, Good Will Hunting, is when the professor played by Robin Williams tells the genius character played by Matt Damon who is an orphan, something along the line of “Does Oliver Twist define you?”

Nowhere is the benefit of doubting our assumptions more nuanced than in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, where among other stories, he recounts how an innocent black man, Ahmoudu Diallo was shot in Bronx, New York, because the policemen assumed that a black man putting his hand in his pocket might be a criminal with a gun.

As I have learnt to doubt my assumptions, I have learnt that more often than not, people are not always the way the look, or more precisely, there is a deeper story beyond the way they initially appear. Most mental shortcuts we are programmed to take are not foolproof; the hood does not make a criminal, polish does not always embody quality; poverty does not always herald laziness. We ought to give people the benefit of doubt, by giving them opportunities to prove themselves before disqualifying them.

Let’s take a cue from this biblical story. When Phillips invited Nathaniel to come and see the messiah, Nathaniel asked Phillips “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Phillips gave the classic response to overcoming our biases “Come and see!”

How might our perception of groups or people we disagree with, or dislike change if we look a little closer, and engage in conversation?

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