Machiavelli or bad hair day?

If you think everyone is out to get you and treat them accordingly, maybe you should think again. Because there are three good reasons to always assume positive intent: fairness, math, and love. 

Alon Shklarek by

In my last piece, I wrote about how to eliminate vampires from your life, by avoiding them whenever possible and blowing them away with positivity when confrontation is unavoidable. But in that same spirit of positivity, what if you’re not absolutely sure someone is a vampire? Maybe they’re just having a bad hair day. If you assume everyone is out to get you and treat them accordingly, maybe you’re as bad as the vampires. So my philosophy is to assume people mean well – until they prove me otherwise!


3 reasons to always assume positive intent

Of course, there are mean people out there. The spectrum goes from those certifiably Machiavellian and ruthless vampires who actually enjoy ruining your day through to people who simply have their own agenda that isn’t aligned with yours. They are ready to lie, trick, and mislead you to pursue their agenda. But let me put forward three arguments for why you should start by always assuming positive intent. One is driven by fairness, the other one by math, and the last one by love.


It’s just fair

The fairness argument states that if you are too ruthless in eliminating potential vampires from your life, you might hit some people unfairly. Not everyone who upsets or annoys you is a genuine vampire, the kind you really should eliminate. Aside from those who relish feeding on people’s misery are those who drain your energy when things are tough for them, but can also be really nice people. They could benefit from some constructive feedback to help them understand what they’re doing, so they can adapt their behavior. But they certainly don’t deserve a stake through the heart! Then there are those who really don’t intend to harm anyone – and don’t even like the taste of your blood! – but occasionally do so because, well, nobody’s perfect. We should forgive them, and hope that they forgive us when we sometimes slip up too!


It’s mathematically proven

The math argument comes from game theory, which shows that it actually pays off to assume positive intent. It turns out that the worst possible outcome occurs when you assume ill intent and never trust anyone as that leads to the highest possible cost and a vicious death spiral. On the other extreme, of course, if you always assume the best of everyone, you leave yourself vulnerable to those ruthless blood-suckers. The best strategy is to always start by assuming the best, but then operating a tit for tat policy, retaliating forcefully if you’re crossed.

There’s an interesting nuance though: Tit for tat involves retaliating only once, and then going back to assuming the best until you’re crossed again. In fact, it seems the optimum strategy is ‘generous tit for tat’: You usually retaliate, but occasionally let something go, give a little love you might say. And that brings me to the love argument.


It’s about loving … others and yourself

This is not just about loving others, but also loving yourself. Think about it: would a life in which you always assume negative intent even be worth living? A life that would be characterized by mistrust, bitterness, and loneliness. That’s the life of a vampire, an existence with little room for real joy or humanity. Wouldn’t you prefer a life of trust, love, and joy, even if it means being hurt now and then? A life in which we embrace opportunities, help each other grow, and encourage one another to live better and achieve more.