The Fallacy of Good Intentions

Have you ever messed up? Messed up badly enough that you feel awful about it, can’t wait to apologize, to try and make it better? And to have others forgive you?

And have you included in your apology/explanation words like, “I really didn’t mean for it to come out that way, it’s really ironic because I didn’t mean for that to happen, I never meant any harm, my intentions were good, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong, I’m really sorry if I hurt anyone because I didn’t intend to, I feel bad because I never meant to, I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt because I didn’t mean to, etc.”

Let me guess: that part didn’t work out so well, did it? And it still feels so unfair, doesn’t it? After all—my intentions were good; why can’t they see I meant well and stop saying and thinking all those bad things about me?

Here’s why. Intentions matter greatly in assessing initial trust. We judge whether another’s words and deeds are aimed at their own self-aggrandizement, or whether they’re intended to help us. A sense that another’s intentions are good can overcome things like credentials and price.

But if things go wrong, intentions do not get you a pass. In fact, they can make it worse. Because when we trust someone and it bombs, we assume only bad things.

Perhaps we conclude you lied about your intentions—which means you took advantage of us. Or we decide it means you turned out to be incompetent—which means you didn’t even know your own weaknesses. Which means your good intentions were either lies or irresponsibly misleading.

Worst of all, however, is continuing to protest that your intentions were good. Because if they’re lies or worthless, and you keep insisting on them, it means you are incapable of learning, and of focusing outside yourself. Why else would you keep talking about it?

When you’ve messed up, let yourself feel the pain, or disgust, or regret, or whatever you feel. Then own up to it to yourself. Your intentions no longer matter. They turned out to be irrelevant. The other person now has plenty of reasons to mistrust you. Don’t make it worse by forcing your failed intentions in the other’s face. They. Do. Not. Care.

After a while, say something like:

Look, I really messed up on this. I realize I did X, and Y, and maybe even Z, and put you at risk for Q. I’m not even fully sure why I did this, but I know I did it, and I’m working on figuring out why. I want to make it better, if you’ll let me. This was my responsibility and my error. And I apologize to you for it; I am sorry I did it.

Period. Let it be. Resist the temptation to sneak a little bit of “I-didn’t-mean-it” in there. If asked “how could you do that, were you trying to do that?” you can simply say, “No, I did not mean to do that,” and leave it at that. Only if someone persists on wanting to know your mental state should you go past it. And even then, don’t let it be an excuse, just an explanation, and keep your answers real short.

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And how often have you really intended to do something messed up anyway?

Let it go. Take ownership. Own it. Grow up.

3 replies
  1. Beth Robinson
    Beth Robinson says:

    I guess I’m just weird. I WANT to hear that the person apologizing to me didn’t mean it. Yes, I need the acknowledgement and the apology, but it’s easier for me if they actually state that this wasn’t the outcome they intended even though it is implicit. 

    My husband, on the other hand, would definitely prefer not to hear them. It’s probably safer to take that route, but not everyone will react the same.

  2. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    > Because when we trust someone and it bombs, we assume only bad things.

    Charlie, if I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying that when we screw up, the people who trust us assume bad things, so rather than trade on our own good intentions (and fail), we should take responsibility for our screw ups.

    Great advice!

    I’d also like to look at it from the other direction, to explore another lesson hidden in your article:

    When /we/ trust someone and the situation bombs, if we choose to assume bad intentions on the part of the other person, we make the situation more negative and burn up all the social capital / trust we’ve accrued between us.  So if we are generous, at least with people we genuinely trust, and give them credit for good intentions when they screw up, we can salvage a lot of relationship out of a bad situation.

    In other words:

    – when it’s MY screw up, work on the assumption that you are perceiving bad intentions, take responsibility, and move on (as you’ve written above);

    – when it’s YOUR screw up, I can work on the assumption that you really did have good intentions (if that is reasonably the case), and I can diffuse an awkward situation and do some of the mending work from my side rather than leave all the work to you.

    Seems like a good way to take responsibility, hedge my bets, and do as much work as I can to keep valuable relationships intact.


  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I’d like to think that, had I thought about it, that is exactly what I would have come up with.  I’m not sure I would have, in fact, but I’d like to think so, because I do think that’s precisely right.  Thank you for spelling it out so cleanly. 


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