Here’s a New Way to Make Sense of Good People Doing Bad Things

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It’s probably a fair assumption that there’s at least one person in your life who’s disappointed you. Maybe it’s a friend who did something that totally clashed with the person you thought they were, or a partner who messed up in a way you never expected — or, depending how you reacted, maybe that person is now a former friend, or an ex.

Generally speaking, when something happens to shatter our perceptions of someone we’re close to, we’ll often react in one of two ways: We’ll decide our original judgment was off, or we’ll downplay the seriousness of whatever it is they did. Either way, as a paper in the newest issue of the Journal of Adult Development explains, we’re willing to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid contradictions. “The human mind abhors doubt and contradictions, which provoke an uncomfortable state of ‘cognitive dissonance,’” the authors write. “This motivates us to see the world in neat, black and white terms. For example, we’ll decide the good person must really have been bad all along, or conversely that the bad thing they did wasn’t really too bad after all.”

In some cases, though, we can accept these two dueling realities — the good person and the bad thing, or vice versa — without twisting one to fit with the other, a skill the study authors have termed “aintegration.”

In the paper, the researchers defined their concept as as “the human ability to bear cognitive/emotional complexity, manifested in the capability to maintain incongruence and live with inconsistencies, discontinuities, contradictions and paradox, and yet not experience strain or discomfort.” It’s related to, but distinct from, the inability to deal with ambiguity. In this case, things are clear-cut but conflicting; the challenge isn’t coping with a lack of certainty so much as holding two seemingly opposing certainties in the same place in your mind.

As BPS Research Digest reported, the authors administered a survey to several hundred people to see if they could identify any patterns in terms of who had the skill and who didn’t. Here’s a sample question:

There is an opinion that in every relationship between couples there are contradictory feelings; on the one hand, the individual benefits from the relationship (for example, love) and on the other hand loses from the relationship (for example, loss of independence). Some people claim that even when the couple has contradictory feelings about their relationship, a good relationship can still exist. In contrast, there are those who claim that when there are contradictory feelings about the couple relationship, it is impossible to maintain a good relationship. … Assuming you have contradictory feelings, to what extent would that cause you discomfort?

There were a few groups, they found, that seemed to be better at coping with this particular type of conflict: being older than middle aged, highly educated, and nonreligious were all positively correlated with higher aintegration skills. So was going through a divorce or separation, perhaps because those people have the experience of seeing their former spouse in two distinctly different lights. (The authors didn’t mention how you might be able to improve your aintegration skills, but noted that it’s negatively associated with a need for structure.)

In a kind of uplifting finding, they also found that people with high aintegration skills were “more likely to report positive life events and to view negative events as not solely negative.” The concept doesn’t just allow for you to see the things you love as flawed, then; it can also help you to remember, even when someone you love has disappointed you, that you loved them in the first place.

A Way to Understand Good People Doing Bad Things