What Our View of Others Says About Us

How we view others shapes how we behave and who we are.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

Source: Timj/Unsplash

In David Brook’s New York Times article “The Moral Bucket List,” he describes good people as people who “listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

Brooks isn’t the only person interested in exploring good people. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and his colleagues defined a good person using research. They developed a framework called “the Light Triad,” which describes three characteristics of “everyday saints.”  

  • Kantianism is seeing other people as an end within themselves rather than a means to an end. Examples statements include “I don’t feel comfortable overtly manipulating people to do something I want,” and “I prefer honesty over charm.”
  • Humanism is seeing the dignity and worth within each person. Example statements include “I tend to treat others as valuable,” and “I tend to admire others.”
  • Faith in humanity is believing that people are fundamentally good. Example statements include “I tend to see the best in people,” and “I think people are mostly good.”

Brooks and Kaufman touch on something interesting in their descriptions of good people. For both of them, goodness hinges on how we view others. It’s not about qualities inherent to good people that make them good, like being smart or funny or charismatic. Instead, their definitions involve seeing others as good, valuable, and worthy.

This relationship between how we view others and how we behave is further clarified by the reciprocity theory, which finds that however we assume others treat us—whether kindly or cruelly— we respond in kind. Kind people are kind and mean people are mean because they assume others are.

If good people assume the best in others, then does that mean not-so-good people assume the worst? There’s some evidence for this. The hostile attribution bias (HAB) describes one’s tendency to project hostility in ambiguous circumstances. If someone doesn’t say much, someone high in HAB might assume that they’re being rude, rather than that they are hungry, tired, or shy. If someone arrives late, they may assume that that person is disrespecting them rather than that traffic was bad. People high in HAB have been found to engage in all types of aggressive behaviors, such as gossiping and teasing others and, more alarmingly, domestic violence.

The Light Triad and HAB leave us with an important lesson. When we view others with mistrust and suspicion, we become more untrustworthy. When we view others as loving and good, we become these traits. If we want to experience the best of ourselves, we need to see the best in others.  

Note: This article is cross-posted on my friendship blog