Research Just Found That People Tend To Have 'Benevolence Bias' — Here's Why We Should Actively Change That

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.


People judge each other very, very quickly. First impressions are made literally within a tenth of a millisecond, and studies have shown people continue to stick to their first impressions even after being presented with facts proving those snap assessments wrong. In other words, the way someone perceives you at the moment you meet—independent of anything you might say or do later—can have an enormous impact on your relationship with that person.

That power that first impressions hold over us adds an extra layer of worry over new findings that suggest people tend to judge more powerful people more kindly than they do those with lower social positions. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found people will infer a combination of positive and negative qualities about "powerless" individuals—think of the average worker, parent, or student. But when it comes to "powerful" actors—like the leaders of companies or university professors—people will only infer positive qualities. Meaning: People tend to automatically assume the best about those in positions of power and don't internalize bad qualities about them the same way they do for other types of people. The authors refer to this phenomenon as "benevolence bias."

This type of bias is, of course, totally unfounded—a person who happens to have a leadership position of some sort is no more or less likely than the average Joe Shmoe to be a kind, intelligent, or otherwise "good" person. But research supports the idea of this "halo effect" across other character traits, as well: Someone who is considered physically attractive, for example, will be perceived as more confident, academically competent, and trustworthy. That leads to these pretty people making 12 percent more money than others, getting more attention from teachers, and even having a higher likelihood of being elected to public office.

In the case of the benevolence bias, the instinct to assume only good qualities about powerful people—and to deny powerless people that same benefit of the doubt—can lead to some pretty severe political, social, and economic consequences. People who've already had a leg up only continue to be able to climb the social ladder, whereas people who lack that same societal status (think already marginalized groups of people, such as women, working-class citizens, and people of color) end up staying toward the bottom of the totem pole.

The good news is it's totally possible to reprogram our minds to filter out these subconscious biases once we identify them. Awareness is the first step, says relationship counselor Dr. Margaret Paul: "As you become conscious of your judgments, you then have the choice to shift your thinking to acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness," Paul wrote on mindbodygreen. "Actions come from thoughts."

And speaking of actions, there are plenty of concrete ways to make sure your prejudices aren't coming through in the places where it really matters, like your relationships and the workplace. Start by educating yourself.

Here's exactly how to know when you're dealing with a toxic person.

And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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