Evaluating People "by the Content of Their Character”
We must move beyond visual and superficial judgments. Here is a better way.
Posted Jun 22, 2020
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I was involved in the struggle for civil rights as a young girl in the 1960s and have pondered how to do this.
Our Default Ways of Evaluating Character Give Us Problems
How do we evaluate a person’s character? King implored us to avoid judgment by something we see—the color of skin. As a psychiatrist for the past 40 years, I appreciate that people commonly do first evaluate one another visually, not only by skin color, but also by height, weight, sex, hair and eye color, the shape of eyes, car driven, the house lived in, and so on. It is our easiest, default way of forming opinions about the quality of others.
Next, we look at superficial aspects—a person’s education, their relatives, job, people they associate with, where they live, what church they attend, their political party.
Then, third in line is what we discover when we talk to a person. As a psychiatrist, I discovered that we respond emotionally to people when we speak with them. This emotional response is not always helpful.
Often we feel positive and warm toward people who are gregarious, energetic, sometimes loud or intrusive, and who may be the life of the party. This is our automatic emotional reaction to them from the way they present themselves and based on what we learned in childhood about how to conduct relationships. We may decide such people have high levels of integrity, trustworthiness, and kindness, all from our automatic emotional reactions, when, in fact, they may possess none of these attributes.
People who are shy, less ebullient, unobtrusive, and quieter may evoke a different emotional reaction, making us feel they are not trustworthy, automatically and emotionally evaluating them as cold, less kind, and having lower integrity, when this may be an inaccurate assessment.
Since our discernment of others’ characters is automatic and emotionally driven, we fail to consider the realities of another person’s circumstance or situation. As a result, we lack a reliable method of judging others and make skewed evaluations of them.
A Better Way of Assessing Character
In working with people in psychotherapy for a combined 80 years, my mentor, Homer B. Martin, M.D., and I discovered two distinctly different personalities. Dr. Martin and I write at length about these in our book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
We call these omnipotent and impotent personalities. We discovered that those with omnipotent personalities both think and act as if they are emotionally strong and powerful, capable of solving most problems, especially for others. Those with impotent personalities act emotionally weak. They are skilled at getting others to solve problems so that they don’t have to.
We found our patients describing these two different personalities in their families and among friends and work colleagues. With this knowledge of two distinct personalities and how they appear in real life, our patients and we discovered that we could better appreciate character.
To assess another’s character, we must recognize what personalities both we and the other person have. Once we know this, we can predict our and their future reactions, thoughts, and behaviors with high levels of consistency and probability. We will have a way of judging character reasonably well.
Observe 7 Traits to Better Determine Character
We can do better with a different approach. We can look at people as they truly exist in their personalities. I will outline seven traits by which to assess people’s character more accurately: attitude, personal standard, demands for emotional support, value system, self-esteem, way of committing to others, and scope of interests.
The attitude of people with omnipotent personalities reveals that they have a great sense of pride and may also be smug and self-righteously complacent. People with impotent personalities display arrogant attitudes and may show outrage when questioned.
2. Personal Standard
The personal standard of omnipotent personalities is to strive for perfection. Nothing less will do. They display strong problem-solving skills and try to think through how to control and solve various situations that arise.
Impotent personalities display personal standards of expedience. They take the path of least resistance. They focus on their personal wants and desires.
3. Demands for Support
Omnipotent personalities avoid depending on others and relish others' dependency on them. As a result, such omnipotent personalities rarely ask for help from others. “I can do it myself” is their mantra. They seek out thankless relationships in which they get little in return but give a great deal to others.
Impotent personalities like to have others care for them and be dependent on others to get things done for them. As a matter of fact, they excel at demanding that others meet their needs and may not be grateful when others do cater to them.
4. Value System
People with omnipotent personalities may put themselves down and have inflated regard for people demonstrating few real attributes or accomplishments. Impotent personalities value themselves highly and place a lower value on others.
Omnipotents’ self-esteem may suffer in spite of a fierce work ethic and their own stellar achievements. Impotent personalities show high and even inflated self-worth and esteem, even when they have few real accomplishments.
6. Commitment To Others
Omnipotent personalities are steadfast and display a way of committing to others that is so loyal and dedicated that commitments endure even when relationships become “dead.” Impotent personalities commit conditionally. Based on changing whims, they will end relationships over any slight disappointment.
7. Scope of Interests
Omnipotent personalities have an exceedingly wide scope of interests. They have many and varied passions, especially those perceiving any injustice done to others. The scope of interests of impotent personalities is far narrower. Their passions solely are personal and reflect more one-track mindedness.
A Better Way to Determine Content of Character
Now you have a way of evaluating another’s character that unfolds by sizing up their traits that you can observe—values, thoughts, interests, functioning, and style of interaction with others. This appraisal cannot be done quickly. It does take time and unfolds slowly as you observe and become acquainted with another person.
You can discover how to bypass your rapid, emotional knee-jerk responses that come from judging by what you see, what you learn superficially, and from your automatic, emotional way of sizing up people. You can replace these unhelpful and inaccurate methods by meticulously observing and evaluating people’s standards for themselves and others, their attitudes, their desire for or shunning of emotional support, their value system, self-esteem, way of committing to others, and scope of their interests in life.
Then, as Dr. King hoped for, you will have the skills necessary to judge people by the “content of their character.”