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Practicing the Assumption of Goodwill

One way to counteract negative expectations about the behavior of others.

Key points

  • The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to attribute misbehavior of others to character flaws.
  • When judging our own misbehavior, we tend to consider it an exception and attribute it to our circumstances.
  • The assumption of goodwill is a potential remedy for this error but requires intentionality and practice.
BhaktiCreative/ Pixabay
Source: BhaktiCreative/ Pixabay

Sometimes people behave in confusing or offensive ways. Most of us would admit that we are also surprised by our own actions at times.

Over our lifespan, we develop explanatory models for interpreting our own and others’ behavior. These models, unfortunately, are highly subject to error, such as the one known social psychologists have labeled the fundamental attribution error (FAE), in which we are more likely to attribute someone else’s actions to their personality rather than taking into account the situation they are facing.

Understanding Fundamental Attribution Error

To illustrate, if someone behaves in a way we don’t like—cuts us off in traffic, cuts in line at the market, or is late for an appointment without calling—we tend to automatically think the behavior is due to some sort of internal character defect of rudeness, carelessness, or selfishness.

On the other hand, when we are in the wrong, we tend to attribute our actions to external forces and circumstances. We quickly justify and excuse ourselves, reasoning that we had an important reason for doing what we did.

In other words, we don’t consider our transgressions typical, but exceptions triggered by forces outside our control; others’ transgressions indicate that there is something inherently wrong with them.

If we extrapolate from these small examples, we can readily see how this false dichotomy leads to a great deal of conflict in human interactions.

FAE is believed to be a learned thought process. Very young children don’t make these judgments but focus only on the sensory information available to them.

The maturing of the prefrontal cortex brings hypothetical thinking and allows older children to begin making mental judgments, projections, and guesses about what is not directly observable. It requires a level of maturity to attribute internal causes to the behavior of others, correctly or incorrectly.

Interestingly, FAE is also influenced by cultural factors. It is more predominant in individualistic, schedule-oriented Western cultures than it is in more communal, less time-bound societies.

The Assumption of Goodwill

One way to counteract FAE is the assumption of goodwill (AOG), a default assumption that others are acting toward us with goodwill until and unless they show us they are not. Practicing AOG would allow you to interpret these events and interactions differently:

  • Instead of cursing the unsafe driver, you might instead think that he is having an emergency, is acutely stressed and distracted, or couldn’t see you in his blind spot. He is not a habitually careless person. This would elicit understanding and calm instead of outrage.
  • Instead of assuming the late person is inconsiderate and doesn’t respect your time, you might wonder if some unavoidable situation has delayed her, and she can’t call. This would elicit curiosity and concern instead of irritation.

The assumption of goodwill can become, with intentional practice, a remedy to the FAE, reconditioning us to think more positively toward people with whom we interact.

The Need for Trust and Safety

Imagine a male doctor meeting with a female patient for the first time. Before inviting her into his office, he must assume that she has basic goodwill toward him. He trusts she is not going to try to hurt him as he tries to help her. The patient, the more vulnerable party, must also assume the doctor’s goodwill before she enters the office. She must trust that while he may benefit intrinsically and financially from the interaction, he is not operating from hidden, selfish agendas.

All relationships require a measure of trust if they are to be healthy and mutually beneficial. To pursue what is in our mutual interests, we must trust that we generally have goodwill toward one another. If this is present, we can approach the interaction with openness, friendliness, and curiosity as we get acquainted with each other.

But what if the patient has been harmed in relationships with men throughout her lifetime? She may carry an opposite assumption: that this man, however kind he initially appears to be, is likely to hurt her as well. Naturally, this woman will have more challenges with the assumption of goodwill. She will need to build trust as she experiences physical and emotional safety in the relationship. If the interaction proves safe and helpful, she may more readily experiment with the assumption of goodwill in subsequent encounters with men.

Individuals with extensive histories of abuse, neglect, rejection, or abandonment will have greater difficulty adopting positive expectations of others if they do choose to embrace that goal.

What if There Isn’t Goodwill?

As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. We are all proven wrong at times about the attitudes and intentions of others if we are regularly in contact with a variety of people. Even if we are well practiced in assuming goodwill, we will certainly encounter others who:

  • Do not have goodwill toward us. When we discover this, we distance ourselves to protect ourselves from harm.
  • Do not trust that we have goodwill toward them. We cannot control what others think about us, so when we encounter this, we can only take the time to demonstrate our goodwill through our actions.

Assumption of Goodwill and Optimism

The assumption of goodwill can be a tool for building a broader optimism toward life experiences and is anecdotally correlated with positive mental and spiritual health.

Consider the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. Could it be that the expectation of goodwill leads directly to more positive interactions with others and more empathetic interpretations of their behaviors?

Cognitive therapy validates the strong theoretical link between habitually negative expectations and poor mental health outcomes. There are fewer empirical studies, and thus less data linking positive expectations, like the assumption of goodwill, to positive mental health outcomes. Further research is warranted.

We should never intentionally put ourselves in unsafe situations and trust those who don’t conduct themselves responsibly and respectfully. But if we want to keep a more calm, friendly, and optimistic outlook, we may consider intentionally practicing the assumption of goodwill.


Colvin, E., Gardner, B., Labelle, P. R., & Santor, D. (2021). The Automaticity of Positive and Negative Thinking: A Scoping Review of Mental Habits. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 45(6), 1037–1063.

Langdridge, D., & Butt, T. (2004). The fundamental attribution error: A phenomenological critique. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43(3), 357–369.

More from Ruth E. Stitt M.S., M.Div., LPCS
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