Passing Judgment

It's a worthy resolution.

Posted Jan 04, 2018

The inevitable conversation about New Year’s resolutions began just after my friend Joanne and I had ordered our meal, having chosen the full three course option.  “My diet starts on January 1st,” she announced. As she filled out the details of this resolution – no more sugar or alcohol, a meager supper, and more exercise – my attention drifted. I thought of all the surveys showing the average lifetime of most New Year’s resolutions is less than two months. I thought of the neurological studies that explain why dieting is futile for so many people, as the body works to return to its most familiar weight. But I did not want to discourage her, so I kept quiet. “And,” she continued, leaning toward me, oblivious of my lack of interest, “I’m going to work on my character. My number one resolution is to be less judgmental.”

I jolted to full attention. Indeed, my dear friend is highly “judgmental." As soon as the waiter took our order she complained about his slowness in understanding her instructions. Nor did she like the way his hair fell into his face: “It’s unhygienic,” she declared. She is similarly judgmental about me. I can rely on her ruthless honesty is assessing a haircut, a meal I prepared, or a conference paper I presented. Though there are times when I need time out from her robust judgments, I heard myself protesting, “No!  What an awful resolution. If you’re less judgmental you won’t be the friend I love.”

Joanne’s judgments form the meat of our conversation. She praises or condemns colleagues, politicians, friends, and acquaintances. She cites the positive and negative features of plays, books, and films. And then we talk. I mull over her views; I probe her reasons; I offer my own views. She always listens, and sometimes modifies her views as a result. Her judgments have a wide range: She is as enthusiastic and emphatic when she praises as when she condemns. In fact, as a friend, she is more often positive: She’s great at emphasizing my achievements and remembering my past successes when I myself have forgotten them. She offers me implicit approval simply by wanting to know “what I think of someone," and she enjoys sharing gossip (both good and bad) with me. If she were no longer judgmental, then all that would be lost.

Judgmental is a term normally used as a criticism and is often equated with making negative judgments. Many common sayings warn against being judgmental: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it,” my teachers would advise, and a powerful directive in the New Testament is “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But the common view that judgment itself is toxic involves two errors: First, it mistakenly equates judgment overall with negative judgments; and second, it ignores the fundamental workings of the human brain that has evolved along with our need to live with other people and to assess them, both positively and negatively.

In the first milliseconds of perceiving someone we not only automatically process information about who a person is, but we form an opinion, positive or negative. This automatic judgment meter is a legacy from crucial survival responses that prime us to assess a person as someone to approach or to avoid. Are they friend or foe? Can I trust this person, or is the friendly appearance deceptive? These judgments are fundamental to navigating our environment.

Does this mean my friend should not make any resolution about “being judgmental”? Does it mean that her judgments, once formed, are fixed and final? By no means! Our compulsion to judge others, to judge ourselves, and to monitor others’ judgments of us underpin our social relationships, whether with a parent or child, with a spouse or partner, with a coworker or boss, with a close friend or a virtual one, with acquaintances, celebrities and politicians. Suppressing judgment would strip us of our personality. Many of our judgments express and reveal deep-seated values, needs and personal goals.

Our constant judgments guide us as we decide who we want to be close to, and who we want to avoid. They include (but extend far beyond) our register of moral right and wrong. At the same time, however, they are vulnerable to self-serving biases: We are prone to think, for example, that our own faults arise from externals forces (we mess up because others are behaving badly, or because the instructions were unclear), whereas we think someone else’s bad behavior arises from poor character. When we are frightened, we may see others as wicked or malicious and, as a result, we may be willing to do them harm. Sometimes an unfamiliar trait (skin color, religion, nationality) is enough for us to judge someone as “less than" us.

Joanne’s resolution to suppress judgment is unrealistic and futile, but it makes good sense to resolve to improve the quality of her judgments, whether positive or negative. In my research on how people use judgment I found that a set of questions about judgment can help us avoid common pitfalls of judgment without undermining its fundamental importance in our lives. First, we can reflect on whether our judgments are flexible and responsive: Do we take in new information about people, or do we refuse to revise our opinions? Are we willing to engage with others’ judgments, and flex our views and shift our perspective? Second, are we willing to challenge our biases about appearance, religion, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation? And finally, can distinguish which emotion-driven judgments stem from the better angels of our nature, and which mislead and diminish us?

Constant testing and refinement of our judgments can be exhausting and humbling, but such reflection is also rewarding and exciting, and essential to living well among the people we love, the people we need, and the people with whom we share our world. Improving our judgment is a worthy resolution, and should not be reserved only for the New Year.