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Cognitive Dissonance

4 Reasons We Unfairly Judge Others

We’re more prone to error than we realize.

Key points

  • People sometimes judge others more harshly than they deserve.
  • Research suggests that misjudgment can stem from cognitive factors, such as discounting situational causes and basing judgments on stereotypes.
  • Motivational factors may also be involved, such as a desire to justify one’s own behavior or to see the world as fair and just.

When someone is having a rough time, others’ reactions can be surprisingly harsh, focused on finding fault—often beyond what is fair or warranted—rather than trying to understand. For example, they might chide someone with health problems for taking poor care of themselves, assume one's financial difficulties are due to irresponsibility, or wonder if a bullying victim might have done something to bring on that treatment.

Several classic theories from the field of social psychology shed light on why this might happen.

1. We underestimate the influence of external situations.

According to research on the fundamental attribution error, we tend to assume that people’s behavior reflects their enduring personality traits, without always giving enough weight to the impact of external factors, such as the particular situation they happen to be in at that moment. We might believe that a grumpy store clerk is just an unfriendly person, when in reality he’s just dealt with a slew of rude customers and is worried about a sick child at home. We’ve happened to catch him on a bad day, but we don’t realize that—we’re basing our judgment on the limited information we’ve observed.

2. We rely on negative stereotypes.

Interpreting someone’s behavior through the lens of a negative stereotype can also lead to harsher judgments. In one study, participants watched a video of a fourth-grade girl taking an academic test in which she struggled in some areas and excelled in others. Participants who were told that she came from a lower-income background judged her as having poorer academic abilities (below grade level), compared to participants who believed she was from a wealthier background, even though they were all watching the same video. The researchers reasoned that negative stereotypes about low socioeconomic status might have led participants to selectively recall and evaluate information from the video, focusing on the negative and discounting the positive.

3. We rationalize mistreating others.

When we’re judging someone we’ve hurt in some way, we should be especially suspect of our motives. This is because we don’t just treat people a certain way because of how we feel about them—we also sometimes feel a certain way about people because of how we’ve treated them. Research on cognitive dissonance suggests that we hate it when our behavior is inconsistent with our attitudes, but instead of rectifying this dissonance by changing our behavior—for example, by being kinder—we often instead do mental gymnastics to rationalize it. If we’ve hurt someone, it may make us feel more morally consistent if we convince ourselves that they somehow deserved it.

4. We want to see the world as a just place.

Even if we’re not responsible for someone’s misfortune, we may still find ourselves trying to justify it. When we see people suffering in ways they clearly don’t deserve, it can threaten a desire to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, which psychologists call belief in a just world. When people hold this belief strongly, it may motivate them to view victims in a more negative and blame-worthy light, such as focusing on the way an assault victim was dressed, or a sick person’s not-perfectly-healthy lifestyle. If a victim is seen as at least partially at fault, then the world still feels just—and we in turn feel less personally vulnerable.

The cognitive processes described here happen largely outside of conscious awareness, but simply being aware that they could be happening within us can help us notice and counteract them. This takes humility, since we generally like to see ourselves as rational, non-judgmental people, but we’re more likely to actually be that way if we recognize our proneness to error and keep an open mind. Otherwise, we risk only compounding others’ suffering.


Darley, J. M., & Gross, P. H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 20–33.

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93–107.

Ross, L. (1977). The Intuitive Psychologist And His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process1. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.

van den Bos, K., & Maas, M. (2009). On the psychology of the belief in a just world: exploring experiential and rationalistic paths to victim blaming. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(12), 1567–1578.

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