Benefit of the Doubt: Meaning, Origin, Importance & Examples

Image of Perla Khattar
Perla Khattar
Published: Dec 1, 2022

You may have heard the term “benefit of the doubt” before, but do you know what it means? The phrase is often used in legal proceedings or in discussions about right and wrong. But where did it come from, and why is it so important?

 In this article, we’ll explore the definition and history of the idiom, as well as its modern uses. We’ll also discuss why it is such an important concept for both people and brands.

What Is the Benefit of the Doubt: Meaning and Definition

It's human nature to want to trust others. We want to believe that people or businesses have good intentions, and that they're honest and reliable. Unfortunately, we can't always take people and businesses at their word. Sometimes, we need to give them the "benefit of the doubt."

The "benefit of the doubt" is a phrase that is used to describe the act of choosing to believe that someone is telling the truth, even when there is evidence to suggest otherwise. This phrase is often used in situations where there is not enough evidence to make a definitive determination about someone's guilt or innocence. 

While the benefit of the doubt can be given for many different reasons, it typically occurs when an individual feels sympathy or compassion for another person. In some cases, the benefit of the doubt may also be given due to a lack of information or understanding about a situation. 

What Are the Origins of Giving the Benefit of the Doubt?

Some people say that the idea of giving someone the benefit of the doubt finds its origins in a biblical passage in Matthew 7:1-5, which talks about judging others. The Bible asks believers to not judge others, for they will be judged in return; in a sense, the holy book is reflecting on giving others the benefit of the doubt when unsure.

The phrase "benefit of the doubt" is also thought to have originated in the English legal system. In Anglo-Saxon law, there was a concept known as "frankpledge" from the early middle ages to the high middle ages. This was a system where groups of 10 families would be responsible for each other's good behavior. If one member of a group committed a crime, the entire group would be punished. Because of this, it was important for members of a group to trust each other. If someone in a group did something that made another member suspicious, they would often give that person the benefit of the doubt and trust them anyway.

The term can also be traced back to medieval times. At this time, trials were often held without any clear evidence being presented against the detainee. Instead, defendants were asked to swear on their honor that they were innocent. While this may seem like an unfair way to determine guilt or innocence, it actually gave defendants the benefit of the doubt since they could not be convicted unless there was clear evidence against them (like being caught committing a crime or having multiple witnesses).

The phrase "benefit of the doubt" first appeared in print and came into figurative use in the 1800s.

The concept of benefit of the doubt has been extended beyond the legal realm and is now used in everyday life. For example, when you can't decide whether or not to believe someone, you might give them the benefit of the doubt. This means that you choose to believe them even though there is no concrete evidence to support their claim.

Why Do We Say "Benefit of THE Doubt" and Not "Benefit of Doubt"? 

The phrase "benefit of the doubt" is usually used with the definite article "the". But you might sometimes hear people say "benefit of doubt" without the article. So, which is correct?

The phrase “benefit of doubt” is used in analogy with the phrase "for the avoidance of doubt." When the word “doubt” is used without any definite article before it, it then will refer to "any uncertainty or ambiguity that may arise.”

However, the phrase “benefit of the doubt” is inspired by the legal principle where a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Here, the idiom is referring to one specific doubt, rather than a general uncertainty; for example: doubting whether a business is being honest when their ads claim their product is environmentally friendly.

So both phrases are technically correct, but in “benefit of the doubt” the article “the” is used to denote a specific doubt that may arise, while in “benefit of doubt” there is no reference to any particular doubt, and instead it focuses on the general idea of uncertainty.

How Is the Term Used in Modern Times? 

Giving, and receiving, the benefit of the doubt is important to all of us, because as Mary Frances Williams puts it, assuming the best in people will give you positive energy. People give other people the benefit of the doubt in their social relationships, when closing deals in businesses and even in court. 

1. In social relationships:

When meeting new individuals or going out with friends, people tend to assume the best in people until they have proven to be untrustworthy. This is an important principle in our society because it allows us to trust people until they give us a reason not to. Think of a married couple; they will stay married until one of the spouses shows untrustworthiness. Think of the group of friends you know, or an association of neighbors, or college club ... the same rule always applies. 

2. In business interactions:

In a recent Trust Signals survey about the benefit of the doubt, it was found that consumers are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to their social circle rather than to a business. Only 27% of surveyed individuals would typically give businesses the benefit of the doubt.

Graph on giving the benefit of the doubt

Having said this, 27% is not an insignificant percentage. A big group of consumers is still ready to trust a business with no questions asked. 

3. In the legal domain:

In court, specifically in criminal matters, detainees are presumed innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution. The benefit-of-the-doubt principle is the backbone of the criminal law system and an important principle of human rights that has protected countless innocent individuals from conviction.

Example Sentences for Using the Idiom "Benefit of The Doubt"

The idiom "benefit of the doubt" is often used when someone wants to give someone else the opportunity to prove themselves. For example, if you are considering hiring someone for a job, you may give them the benefit of the doubt and give them a chance to prove themselves. 

Here are some other examples of how this idiom can be used:

  • "I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and see how she does with the project before deciding whether or not to give her more work."

  • "I know she's been acting strange lately, but I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and see if she's just going through a tough time."

  • "I don't know if I buy his presentation, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt."

  • “The detainee was near the crime scene, but they will be given the benefit of the doubt and will be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.”

Why Should You Give People or Brands the Benefit of the Doubt? 

In a report by the Journal of Happiness Studies, it was found that people who give others the benefit of the doubt were happier, compared to survey-takers who blamed others. There are many reasons why you should give people and brands the benefit of the doubt. Here are just a few:

  1. It's the decent thing to do. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, even if you don't agree with them. Showing compassion and understanding goes a long way in making the world a better place.

  1. You never know what someone is going through. We all have our own battles to fight, and we never know what another person is dealing with behind closed doors. That co-worker who seems grumpy all the time could be struggling with depression; that friend who always has negative things to say might be going through a rough patch in their life; that small corner store that is having below-average customer service could be behind on bills. If we take the time to listen instead of judging, we might be able to help them in ways we never thought possible.

  1. It can prevent arguments. If you give someone the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to conclusions, it can prevent arguments and hurt feelings down the road. 

  1. It shows maturity. When we refuse to give in to anger and hatred, it demonstrates our maturity as individuals. It shows that we're capable of handling difficult situations without resorting to name-calling or putting others down.

  1. Extending the benefit of the doubt can create goodwill. If you're always quick to judge and criticize, people will view you as negative and difficult to deal with. But if you're willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, they'll see you as more open-minded and easygoing—two qualities that can help build strong relationships.

  1. It allows for growth. There are plenty of people doing amazing things, but if you're only focused on finding fault, you'll never see it. Instead, try giving people the benefit of the doubt and see how it changes your perspective. You will not only improve yourself, but your relationships as well.

  1. People and brands deserve second chances. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we need others to give us a chance to redeem ourselves.

  1. It allows others to prove themselves worthy of your trust. By giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you're essentially saying, "I believe in you." And when someone feels trusted, they often work hard to live up to that trustworthiness, which benefits both parties involved.

Why Brands Should Seek the Benefit of the Doubt

At Trust Signals we deliver you news, analysis and advice on brand trust—how to get it and how to keep it. So we couldn’t not write about the importance of getting the benefit of the doubt as a business. As Warren Buffet said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

As a brand, one of the most important things you can do is to earn the benefit of the doubt. This means that when people see or hear your brand, they assume that what you are offering is good, trustworthy, and worth their time and money.

There are a number of reasons why this is important. First, it sets you apart from your competition. If people see that you are a brand that they can trust, they are more likely to choose you over someone else. Second, it builds loyalty among your customers. If they know that they can trust you, they are more likely to keep coming back to you for their needs. Finally, it helps you weather tough times. If people have a positive opinion of your brand, they are more likely to stick with you even when things are tough.

In Trust Signal’s recent research, it was concluded that most consumers’ default thought process does not grant businesses the benefit of the doubt. In other words, businesses need to earn the benefit of the doubt by actively building trust. 

Graph on giving the benefit of the doubt

To earn the benefit of the doubt from consumers, businesses need to win their trust first. In the survey, many factors were discovered to impact whether a consumer will give a brand the benefit of the doubt. This is a great starting point for businesses seeking to build trust with their customers: 

  • Consumers had a personal positive experience with the brand: 26%
  • The brand is involved in social issues to help make the world a better place: 19%
  • The brand has positive coverage in the news media: 17%
  • The brand has positive customer reviews online: 17%
  • The brand has many fans on social media: 9%
  • The brand takes political stances I agree with: 8%

Want to deep-dive into the research we’ve gathered on getting the benefit of the doubt as a business? Check out this blog post.

Final Thoughts

The benefit of the doubt is a powerful thing. It's the ability to see someone or something in a positive light, even when there's evidence to the contrary. And it can make all the difference in our relationships, both personal and professional. In fact, trust is essential to any business relationship, but it's especially important when it comes to dealing with consumers. Why? Because when consumers trust a business, they're more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. And that can make all the difference when it comes to things like customer satisfaction and loyalty.

So if you're looking to build trust with your customers, remember that it's not just about being honest and transparent. It's also about making sure you deliver on your promises and always put their needs first. Do that, and you'll be well on your way to earning their trust—and their business.

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