Judging People – Why So Hard to Stop

‘Dick head’ was what I thought when I indignantly watched a driver ahead of me at the traffic lights not moving forward when the signal changed to green. As a consequence of this, I and other drivers behind were held up and couldn’t get through before the red light came on again. I was judging him, presuming he was lazily letting his attention wander at the junction and so was slow to react.

Yet, I have previously done a similar thing myself. This unfair judging someone we don’t even know is probably fairly common. I didn’t stop to consider the possibility the driver might have had a problem with the car stalling, or perhaps was being distracted by a wasp or a child in the back seat. Who knows?

When meeting people, don’t most of us have a tendency towards judging them on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence? We may notice for example their clothes and way of speaking, or their facial expressions and as a result make unwarranted assumptions about their social status, attitudes, and character.

If we value non-discrimination and being inclusive, we may wonder why it is so easy to jump to judgment.

Mindfulness meditation recognises the challenge. Hence, it helps people to see how they can become entangled in the stream of thoughts and feelings that they experience in ways that are not helpful.

Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us.” (Professor Mark Williams, clinical psychologist).

However, this distancing oneself from emotionally judging things requires much practice.

I would suggest there are three reasons why it is so hard to stop judging

1 Effect of social culture on judging

The first reason is we cannot avoid the effects of our social culture on us. We have automatic habits of thought that we often don’t even notice. The mass media often reinforce these. We are aware of how social stereotypes affect prejudice. But there are other less obvious ones.

The halo effect is one example, when without realising it, we jump to the thought that any attractive individual we meet is more likely to be friendly and cooperative. Likewise, we might see any unattractive person as reserved and unready to lend a hand. Another example is if we automatically suppose that the non-muscular individual is unfit and unathletic. Because such thoughts stay at the fringe of our normal awareness, they are hard to notice let alone eradicate.

The solution is to stop jumping to conclusions on the basis of insufficient information.

2 Judging due to egoism

The second reason why it is so hard to stop making a judgment is to do with the egoistic inclinations of our human nature. Our egoistic mind first approaches people with ‘no’. For example, if we think they are of the wrong social class, not the right ethnic group, not one of us. If we can prove that they are bad, it makes us feel good. Blame and accuse another group or person and we feel superior.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Jesus Christ)

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr points out that when Christ said ‘do not judge’, he meant we first have to be ready to say ‘yes’ before we say ‘no’. To be inclusive. To suspend judgment. Not to show others are wrong to prove we are right. To give others the benefit of the doubt.

3 Need for rational judgments

I would suggest a third reason we find it so hard to stop making judgments is the inevitable need to use good sense applied to troubling issues.

Here are some examples of the need for reflective judgment between what is good and bad.

– Juries need to exercise fair judgment of guilt or innocence. The verdict hugely affects the reputation of the accused.

– Job interviewers need to judge who are the best applicants without bias. Their correct choice affects the effectiveness of the enterprise.

– Examiners need to exercise academic judgment with due diligence when marking exam papers as results usually affect the student’s future career.

– As citizens of a democratic society we are asked to vote for a government. Consequently, we will want to exercise our political judgment to choose the best one for the needs of the country.

– Parents need moral judgment to decide what to teach children about right and wrong.

– As private individuals we need to find some meaningful sense of the chaos and uncertainties that surround us. So, we use our rationality as well as our feelings to discern what is right and good in life. What values to hold dear in which to put our hope.

Getting a balance between head and heart

People have been – to my mind – rightly put off the idea of judgment by the all or nothing ways of thinking found in some of the orthodox teachings of Christianity. You are saved or not, a believer or not, a sinner or not, deserving of punishment in hell or reward in heaven. There is also the old idea that a harsh deity causes human suffering by seeking revenge on the original sin of Adam in the garden of Eden. I believe this is understandably seen as nonsense these days.

Some feel that life just doesn’t make any rational sense – suffering, chaos, disaster. They can’t make head or tail of it. One result has been a loss of expectation in western world ‘post-modern culture ‘ that there is any one rational truth about life. Consequently, each person’s understanding is seen as valid as everyone else’s. I suspect this is one reason why there has been a growth in interest in mystical writing, mindfulness meditation, compassion focused training, or new age writing – all movements that emphasise personal experience rather than an intellectual framework of ideas about objective reality. Ideas that require our discernment and evaluation.

What concerns me is not the growth of such movements which are very important for spiritual development but rather some individual adherents of them who do not try to find some rational sense out of the mystery of life. My guess is this results from confusing an attempt at making rational judgment (which is good) with quick judgmental reactions (which is bad).

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (Jesus Christ)