Benefit of the Doubt - a Social Pattern

by Charles Miller on September 25, 2005

Name: Benefit of the Doubt


Some party has done something of which you disapprove, but you can only guess as to their reasons for doing so. You wish to achieve an outcome where the behaviour is not repeated.


  • The natural response to aggression is defensiveness, which leads either to a shutdown of communication, or to counter-attack
  • Accusation and counter-attack lead to third-parties being forced to take sides, causing collateral relationship damage, and a possible spiralling out of control of the situation


Express your displeasure with the behaviour of the party in the wrong, but do so in such a way that places a favourable interpretation on the reasons for their actions. Suggest that their actions were obviously an unintentional mistake, or were done for good, but misguided motives. This way you offer the other party the opportunity to repudiate their own actions, but to save face in doing so.

Ultimately, there are four possibilities:

  1. The guilty party's actions were indeed mistaken or innocently misguided, in which case reparations can be made without malice.
  2. The guilty party's actions were malicious, but they do not wish to admit fault. The benefit of the doubt gives them a convenient fiction under which to apologise or make amends, returning things calmly to the status quo.
  3. The guilty party's actions were malicious, and they wish to admit fault. Offering the benefit of the doubt makes you look generous, and gives them the chance to appear to be behaving honourably by admitting fault and making amends even when they were not accused of it directly.
  4. The guilty party's actions were malicious, and they really don't care about making amends at all. You still look good for playing the diplomat, and their malice is placed in sharp focus against your generosity.

The only danger lies in the second outcome, where malice is allowed an easy excuse. In the short term, this is beneficial as it places the guilty party on notice that they're at least going to be called on their misdeeds, without overwhelming the situation with bad blood. On the other hand, though, it can be taken advantage of, which means you have to be careful you do not offer the benefit of the doubt too many times.

As a great thinker once said: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me... you can't get fooled again."

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