The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

Judging Personality: Is Science Enough?

When do we judge others...and why?

"As my daughter has gotten older," wrote the father of a 13-year-old, "she has become fearful that because I'm not a Christian, I'm going to hell." The parent's letter was addressed to the Slate advice columnist "Dear Prudie".

The father and mother had divorced before the birth of their daughter, and the father, who described himself as an active parent, had seen his daughter on an every-other-weekend basis. 

The evangelical Christian environment in which his daughter was being raised, the father believed, had been harmful to her development. He continued:

When I even try to broach the subject of religion (mentioning my belief in evolution or that homosexuals are not sinners), it upsets her greatly. This isn't what I want, but I do want to be able to communicate to her what I believe...

The columnist replied that she had received a number of similar letters, then poked some fun at both sides:

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Isn't it rather devilish...to raise children to be rude, and cruel...[but even so, don't use] your time together to give her a crash course on the Enlightenment.

Agree to disagree with your daughter, the columnist advised, and then change the subject.

One reason judging others is often controversial is that judgments can arise from so many different perspectives: religious, scientific, ethical, or others (and there are large differences of opinion about judgments within each of those intellectual traditions).

I judge both myself and other people fairly frequently and in various ways. I pay attention to who is on time, who is late, who (I think) is smart and who is less so, who is outgoing and who is shy. Recently, I thought it might be helpful to examine my personal guidelines for such judgments - to know better when I am in-line with my values and beliefs or out-of-line.

Some initial comments on my own perspective on these matters are probably in order.

As a personality psychologist, science and scientific ways-of-knowing serve as a bedrock of certainty and security for me. I am certain, for example, that scientific methods provide the best ways of learning about natural phenomena. Although the truth may be unknowable, I believe the pursuit of ever-better approximations of the truth is possible and I am informed by this scientific ethos.

Science, for example, is crucial to understanding personality; one's understanding, in turn, contributes to judgments of personality.  There is more to judging people, however, than science alone.

Unlike judging carrots, say, judging personality often elicits a reaction from the person being judged. When valued, people feel pleased; when devalued, they may react with anger, defensiveness, confusion or hurt.

Science and reason, by themselves do not assign value to people (or anything else). David Hume, the 19th century English philosopher, wrote that pain and pleasure direct our thought and action; in contrast, mathematics, logic, and science are directionless by themselves.

"It is not contrary to reason," Hume wrote, "to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."


Consistent with Hume's argument, patients with brain injuries that separate their emotion and valuing from their reasoning, experience substantial difficulties in judging what course of action to take (see Antonio Damasio's Descarte's Error).

A system of values beyond science and reason becomes involved when judging people. Science can help us understand these values, but the values arise from other ways of knowing.

In the following posts, I will examine science, religion, ethics, and other influences on judgments of personality, and will try to make some sense of how they fit together.

Please keep in mind that I am far from an expert in many of the areas I will examine. All I can offer is a well-intentioned effort -- and invite any of you interested to clarify or correct my facts, or provide alternatives to my opinions along the way.

Notes: The letter from a father was posted on: Dear Prudence (Oct 11, 2007) "Tears for Fears. What to do when your religious child thinks you're going to hell." Downloaded from http://www.slate.com/id/2175640/ on Nov 11th, 2008. The argument concerning the primacy of pain and pleasure in values, and the quote from David Hume both arise in Hume, D. (1888). A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Section III, Part III (quote: p. 416). New York: Macmillan and Company. A copy can be downloaded from http://books.google.com/. Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam Publishing.

(c) Copyright 2008 John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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