All day long, I judge people. Most of the people I judge are people I’ve never met. As a professional recruiter, I get paid to pass shrewd judgement on strangers. My clients expect it. They only want to see candidates who are legitimate contenders for their positions. I do the dirty work, so they don’t have to.
When I step away from my desk, I’m weary from this responsibility, and don’t want to continue it in my personal life. Perhaps that’s why I’m so baffled when others rush to judgement or treat judging as some sort of hobby worth sharing.
Recently, our country was divided by a conundrum with no sound basis for judgement on either side. Unless we were there, it’s impossible to know what happened between Judge Cavanaugh and Dr. Ford, yet, there we were, lined up on opposite sides, driven by our own dogma, loudly proclaiming what we believe to be true.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Sit with a group of disgruntled sports fans and watch the assessments (most of them highly unqualified) fly. Even worse are the Internet message boards where over-zealous fans enjoy anonymity. In my state lately, the message boards are where middle-aged men offer their assessments of the character of young football players who they have never met.
Why do we insist on judging others, especially when it’s such an inaccurate science? I did some research on this, and learned a few things.
Judging strangers is natural. Our brains are programmed with data accumulated throughout our lives, and when encountering stimuli, like a stranger’s face, they react by subconsciously categorizing that stimuli based on previous experiences. We rely on that instinct to keep us from meticulously studying every stimulus we encounter. Without it, dealing with everyday situations would be impossible.
You can’t possibly walk through a crowded public area, like an airport, and accurately judge everyone you see. There is just way too much data to process. Similarly, in my role as a recruiter, I encounter hundreds of potential candidates each day. If I devoted several minutes to my evaluation of each candidate, I would never get to the candidates who my clients might want to hire. Instead, I rely on quick judgements that are based on years of experience and are fairly reliable to help me navigate through the data. Still, I acknowledge and must accept the possibility that I miss potential talent. Judgement is rarely ever failproof.
It’s when we decide to judge someone more thoroughly that we must be most careful. Even though our subconscious might initially push us in a prejudiced direction, we need to decide if that initial judgement is accurate. One of the most interesting articles I found in my research is Why We Judge Others (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conscious-communication/201805/why-we-judge-others).
In this article, the author says that most judgements are formed either by personality or situational attributions. We tend to make judgements on strangers based on personality attribution. In other words, since we don’t know them, we use our observations to judge their personalities. We might see a young person with his hat on backwards and pants hanging precariously from his rear end, and decide that he’s threatening and disrespectful. If that person was our nephew, we would likely attribute his behavior to the situation: he’s a young man asserting his independence and individuality.
I think that’s why the Kavanaugh supreme court confirmation drama divided us so deeply. Half of us identified with Dr. Ford, while the other half identified with Judge Kavanaugh. When you identify with someone, you typically judge them based on the situation, and those judgements are almost always kinder.
I also think that it’s important to be mindful of this tendency, so we don’t unfairly judge others. When I evaluate candidates, I tend to be more forgiving with those with whom I can closely identify. That’s natural, but if I’m aware of this tendency, I can correct it and be more equitable.
This applies in everyday life too. When someone cuts me off in traffic, after I choke back my verbal assessment of their personality, I try to make a situational attribution: maybe they really need to find a restroom or they were just too distracted to realize the way that they were driving.
Judging others is an awesome responsibility that we should not take lightly. If we approached it with a little more awareness and kindness, I think that we would be happier people.