Think wrong and be right

29.10.2020

Think wrong and be right. To say that many have made this saying their way of thinking about others is not an exaggeration, in fact, there is even relatively recent scientific evidence about how people think that others act more for bad reasons than for good reasons.

This idea that was until recently only part of popular culture has just been transformed into a theory with even an experiment behind it: the fallacy of the worst motive .

Below we will learn more about this new cognitive bias, the experiment with which it was tested, and some of the conclusions that have been reached.

What is the fallacy of the worst reason?

People do not tend to think in a neutral way towards others. When someone does something we tend to judge the moral behind that action, wondering about the reasons that have made a person behave in a certain way. In fact, in philosophy of morality there is consensus that the motives behind an action are crucially in determining the morality of the action itself, even if the action is apparently neutral.

Joel Walmsley and Cathal O'Madagain, from University College York and Mohammed VI Polytechnic University respectively wanted to know to what extent people tend to attribute the worst possible motives behind people's actions. This idea, which they have called the worst motive fallacy, holds that we are more likely to attribute negative reasons to others rather than positive ones and, consequently, think that people are going to behave in a way that satisfies those bad motives .

The idea behind the worst motive fallacy has a lot to do with a widespread belief in popular culture that is summed up in the saying "think wrong and you'll be right." When we attribute some kind of moral motivation to someone, especially if it is an unknown person, as a protection against the bad that they could do, it is better to assume that their intentions are not good, than if a person has to choose between helping others and helping herself will choose the latter.

Contrary to this idea is a popular aphorism called Hanlon's Razor, which basically holds that one should never attribute to evil what can be explained by stupidity. This idea is a warning against assuming evil in all people since, according to this aphorism, what can really happen is that whoever does an apparently harmful action is not aware of the damage that he does or that his motivation behind has not been ignoble.

However, the existence of the saying and its antagonistic aphorism come to say that it is common in popular culture to attribute a bad intention to the actions of others and that, with the intention of preventing the saying from being abused, the knife of Halton stands in such a way that it invites people to reflect on their thinking of others. Both of these sayings made Walmsley and O'Madagain wonder if the bias of attributing malicious intent to others really existed, wanting to demonstrate it scientifically.

All kinds of negative biases

The idea of ​​the worst motive fallacy is not really surprising, since it is already a classic trend in cognitive and social psychology to propose biases in which people prefer the bad before the good . Many of our cognitive aspects such as attention, motivation, perception, memory and our own emotions are more strongly influenced by negative stimuli than by neutral or positive ones.

A classic example of bias in which negativity influences the way we see things is the fundamental attribution error. People, when we have a failure or inconvenience, we attribute external causality to them, that is, we blame our situation, environmental factors or other people (eg, "I failed the exam because the teacher had a mania for me"). On the other hand, if the failure has been made by someone else, we emphasize their internal factors, such as personality, character, intelligence and own motivation (eg, "she has failed because she is a bad student, lazy and stupid")

The negativity bias is also very present in situations in which it gives us the feeling that everything is going wrong . Our way of perceiving reality makes us pass what happens around us through a filter in which we let the bad things pass and the good things we simply ignore. This pattern of thought is usually that of very pessimistic people, with low self-esteem or, also, with a mood disorder such as depression.

Looking at these examples of biases influenced by negativity, the idea behind the worst motive fallacy is not surprising. When a person does something they can have a lot of different reasons for doing what they are doing. We could classify these motives in moral terms, going from the most noble to the most selfish and evil. Rationally, we could select the most probable reason, but if it occurs that all of them have the same probability of explaining the behavior of the person, it is most likely that we think that he does so thinking of himself with the worst reason.

Experimental approach to the fallacy

In their 2020 article Walmsley and O'Madagain present two experiments, the first being the one that we are going to explain as it is the one that best explains this phenomenon. In this experiment, they asked their participants to read a short story in which their protagonist could have two reasons behind to carry out the same action . In each case, one of the reasons was "good" and the other was "bad." The protagonist discovers that after all he cannot do what he had planned, and has to choose between two alternatives, one being the one that satisfies his "good" motive and the other his "bad" motive.

Based on their initial hypotheses, both researchers expected that if their worst motive fallacy theory was real, the participants would choose the negative motive as the motive behind the character's behavior. Furthermore, both researchers assumed that the participants would expect the character to behave to satisfy their original negative desire , thus choosing the worst action of the two proposed to them.

Each participant was given one of four different vignettes, each telling a different story. Next we are going to see an extensive example of one of these stories.

A politician has just run an electoral campaign and has left over part of the budget that she decides to spend hiring a computer engineer she knows. Politics does this for two reasons: one is that it knows the engineer has just lost his job and needs a new job and money, so politics would hire him to help him; while the other reason would be that politics needs this computer scientist to send misleading messages to supporters of his political rival and cause them to vote on the wrong day.

The policy contacts the computer engineer and describes the job. He tells her that he is not willing to do what he asks because of the ethical implications that this implies. Politics can do two things at this point: One is to hire the computer engineer anyway, who will be in charge of maintaining the party headquarters computers and thus helping him financially, even if he is not going to do what politics wanted. The other option is not to hire him but rather a hacker, who will have no ethical problem sending misleading messages to his rival's voters.

Once they had read this story, the participants were asked the following question: "What option do you think politics will choose?" and they were given a choice between the following two options:

  • Hire the engineer to give you work
  • Hire the hacker to fool rival voters.

After deciding which option they thought the protagonist of the cartoon would choose, the participants had to rate the two reasons described at the beginning of the cartoon on a scale from better to worse, using a scale from -10 (very bad) to +10 (very bad). good).

Taking the hypothesis of both experimenters applied to the cartoon that we have just read, it was expected that the participants would choose the worst motive, that is, wanting to send misleading messages to the voters of their political rival, and that consequently politics would decide not to hire the engineer computer but the hacker to satisfy this will.

The researchers interpreted the participants' responses to the question about which option they believed the protagonist of the story would choose to be indicative of what they considered to be the main motive for their original action . As in the end the protagonist could only satisfy one of the original reasons, the action that was chosen presumably had to be the one that satisfied the most important reason for him.

Taking the idea of ​​the worst motive fallacy, the researchers assumed that participants would end up being biased towards negative motives. That is, even if there were two reasons, one good and the other equally probable, the participants would value the negative one as more important, which would make them opt for the more selfish alternative when the original plan could not be fulfilled. .

In addition to the vignette explained above, Walmsley and O'Madagain presented three other vignettes to study participants. One was a man who had to decide whether to take the bus to town to buy a gift for his friend or take the train to rob a pensioner, a girl who is going to a party and must decide whether to wear a dress that will embarrass to the host or a pair of Texans who are going to make his mother happy and a university student who has to decide whether to go to France on vacation hoping to cheat on his girlfriend or go to Argentina to see his cousins ​​and learn Spanish.

The results of his experiment were quite interesting since they revealed scientific evidence that people tend to attribute bad motives to people, especially if they are unknown. In those situations in which instead of being able to do good and evil simultaneously (eg, employ the computer scientist and deceive the supporters of the political rival) the person can only choose one option or the other, we tend to think that his original motivation was the bad one and that, therefore, he will choose the option that satisfies him .

Possible causes

The worst motive fallacy fits perfectly with the immense family of negative biases, now classic in psychology. People evaluate other people's motivations and morality more critically and negatively. We consider that the worst reasons are the ones that drive the actions of others, and negative reasons are the main reasons that generate the behavior of people we do not know or distrust or even close people who, although we like them, cannot help but think that they are less moral and strong than ourselves.

One of the possible explanations for this fallacy, according to the researchers themselves, is our evolutionary history and could have adaptive advantages . People, still wishing for the best, prepare for the worst, paying special attention to the negative. Applied to the history of evolution, it was better to flee from what was suspected to be dangerous even if it was not, and it meant the loss of a very good opportunity rather than to trust something that was dangerous, make mistakes and put our physical integrity at risk or even lose your life.

Be that as it may, it is clear that our thinking pattern is biased towards negativity, having the philosophy of "think badly and you will be right" very strongly internalized. It is not something bad in itself, and more so taking into account its possible evolutionary implications, but of course it does condition our way of perceiving others, a perception that if it becomes extremely negative it could pose problems such as attributing guilt or badness to people who didn't want to hurt at all.

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