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The Secret to Better Judgment: Explore Doubt

On autopilot, we judge first and look for reasons later.

Key points

  • We attribute our judgments of others' behavior to stable traits, qualities, and morality.
  • We tend to judge our behavior in terms of context-dependent responses and utility.
  • Resolve to see all behavior as context-dependent. Do not attribute it to personality, character, morality, psychopathology, class, or group ties.

The autopilot brain makes implicit judgments based on habits, past experiences, learned associations, and present comfort or discomfort. It does not consider alternative or contradictory evidence or the future effects of our behavior on ourselves and others. It sees the present through the lens of the past and the future, not at all.

The reflective brain, which can approach objectivity, looks for evidence to support implicit judgments only when challenged or when there's sufficient discomfort to require explicit explanation. (Yelling at the kids feels wrong.)

Even then, the evidence it chooses is subject to confirmation bias. The reflective brain tends to look for evidence to support implicit judgments and ignore or summarily dismiss contrary evidence. (Yelling is the only way to calm them down.) In short, we don’t have reasons to make autopilot judgments; we make judgments and then look for reasons.

We tend to judge other people’s behavior regarding stable traits, qualities, and morality. We tend to judge our behavior in context-dependent terms, considering its specific utility. Social psychologists call this difference in evaluative criteria the actor-observer bias.

“I yelled at the kids because I was stressed about getting them to school on time. They weren’t cooperating in the van, and the yelling got them to stop arguing with each other.”

“My partner yelled at the kids because he’s selfish, impatient, narcissistic, and has an anger problem.”

Both partners in this example believe they yelled at their kids because they felt stressed, the children were uncooperative, and the yelling worked. Both attribute the other’s behavior to character flaws, poor impulse control, or psychopathology.

The tendency to use different criteria for judging others is independent of frequency. One would expect trait-based behaviors to be the rule and context-dependent behaviors, the exceptions, occurring only in certain contexts. Yet the context-dependent attribution for yelling at the kids occurs every morning, while the personality-attributed behavior occurs less frequently. The explanation for the other parent not yelling at the kids becomes:

“He was too selfishly preoccupied to notice them.”

The relationship declension is another source of inherent bias. The same quality judged to be a personal virtue is judged to be a vice in others. Examples:

“You’re stubborn, I’m firm.”

“You’re wishy-washy, I’m flexible.”

“You’re insensitive, I tell it like it is.”

“You’re critical, I give feedback.”

“You’re controlling, I help you do things right.”

“You’re unreliable, I have a lot on my plate.”

“You're angry, I’m justifiably indignant.”

“You’re entitled and rude, I react to people in kind.”

Liking or disliking someone skews our judgments of their behavior and personal qualities. If you dislike someone, you might feel they’re grandiose. A friend who likes that same person might describe the same qualities as imaginative or inspiring. Charismatic politicians can get away with lying. Unattractive ones, not so much. Divorcing partners vilify the same qualities they loved when they first met; energetic becomes manic, mellow becomes lazy.

The work of Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske, and Peter Glick suggested that people worldwide make judgments based on warmth and competence and that the two tend to be mutually exclusive. That is, people judged to be warm are also considered less competent, and those judged as competent tend to be seen as less warm.

Judgments are apt to become invidious as people live together and react to each other. The competent partner will seem cold and insensitive, if not narcissistic and manipulative, and the warm partner will seem overly sensitive and emotional, if not borderline personality.

How to Overcome Inadvertent Hypocrisy

We’re inclined to inadvertent hypocrisy for two hidden reasons. The autopilot brain does not consider the effects of our behavior on others and does not routinely encode them in memory. At the same time, we’re hypersensitive to the effects of other people’s behavior. In an argument, it seems that our partners are misbehaving while we’re trying to make them see the errors of their ways.

After an argument, you’ll likely recall the worst thing your partner said or did but not what you said or did immediately before it. In other words, we recall our partners’ reactions but not what they reacted to. Unusually, only one partner in an exchange is critical, defensive, or resentful. And it’s quite usual for both partners to perceive that only the other is critical, defensive, or resentful.

The other reason for inadvertent hypocrisy is due to our intolerance of other people displaying qualities and behaviors we don’t like about ourselves. The secret domestic violence perpetrator rails against “wife-beaters,” the critical partner can’t take criticism, the person who interrupts can’t tolerate being interrupted, and the braggart can’t stand boastful people. Politicians deride the “political expediency” of their opponents. The child who most reminds troubled parents of themselves gets the brunt of discipline, if not abuse.

We can avoid inadvertent hypocrisy with the knowledge that most of what we accuse partners and politicians of doing, we’re probably doing ourselves. The only reliable way to get your partner to change behavior is to change the behavior your partner reacts to. The only way to get politicians to change their behavior is to roundly reject pandering to any political base, even if you agree with any cited facts.

Resolve to see all behavior as context-dependent and never attribute it to personality, character, morality, psychopathology, and certainly not to class or group affiliation. If you do so, you'll be less judgmental, and your judgments will center on behavior rather than biased attributions about personality or class.

Doubt Is Our Friend

Doubt is insidious when we deny or cover it with a veneer of certainty. (A dead giveaway that certainty is a veneer is when it’s insulated by irritability or resentment.) For the intellectually honest, doubt is an invaluable asset that stimulates interest and motivates learning. For intellectually honest, reflective judgment comes at the end of thought processes, not at the beginning.

Now that all types of media foment high emotional reactivity, saying, "I don’t know," is the height of honesty. And the most lamentable of lost virtues is reserving judgment.


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