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Judging Personality: The Judgmental Psychologist

Who is being judgmental?

Scientists aspire to be nonjudgmental, neutral, and value free in their work.

Unlike the medical profession, psychology began as a basic science, with its clinical branches of psychotherapy and personality assessment added later.

Professor Stanley Fish put it like this:

"...To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists. It is their task to figure out how the mind processes and responds to stimuli, or how the emotions color and even create reality... Their product is not mental health, but knowledge; their skills are not diagnostic, but analytic..."

Psychologists attempt to understand personality, we claim, not judge it.

The psychological scientist's key question is "How does personality work?". Such scientists avoid more judgmental questions such as, "Do you have a good personality (or character)?"

In the context of performing psychotherapy and related activities, however, the question "How does personality work?" can quickly morph into "How well does personality work?" -- and that shift from "how it works" to "how well it works," moves toward value judgments.

The limits to neutrality in regard to judging personality are crossed almost immediately.

Take the example of reporting results from a psychological test that measures Extraversion-Introversion (sociability), High-Low Absoprtion (highly committed attention potentially including altered states), Intelligence, Dominance (power over others), and a Lie scale (to see if people told the truth on the test).

Some feedback from the test may be rather neutral: for example, "Your score on the Extraversion scale was about average."

Other test feedback may have some judgment built in. "Your score on the Lie scale was unusually high," certainly sounds judgmental. It is hard to phrase this with more neutrality. One could try, "You scored low on the honesty scale," but that sounds as bad or worse to me.

Sometimes, feedback can seem neutral at first, but be judged more negatively as more is learned about it. "One of your highest scores was on Absorption ...." sounds fairly neutral. Add in, "...a high score sometimes reflects childhood abuse," and worries emerge.

Judgments, even when unintended, can be perceived by the person receiving information; some people's sensitivities are easily triggered.

A woman proud of her leadership abilities may be pleased to hear, "Your score on Dominance was high." Another woman, proud of her egalitarian values, might feel ashamed of the same test score because of its implication that she controls others.

A person's expectations also influence what results mean: "Your IQ was 110" will please the man worried he was below average, but disappoint the other man who believed himself to be brilliant.

I conclude that almost any information about a person can convey a judgment, or be perceived as if it does. There is a certain irreducible "judginess" to the communication of information about personality: judgments often are implicit in messages about personality, and even when judgments are not there, the message still can be perceived as judgmental by the recipient.

A non-judgmental message will be communicated only when it (a) is presented in a neutral fashion, (b) does not imply or entail any non-neutral additional meanings or outcomes, (c) is within the judged person's expectations, and (d) does not interact with any of the individual's pre-existing sensitivities.

Personality psychologists (and others) are caught in this "judging others" trap.

Almost any information about personality has a judgy quality to it. For that reason, we need to ask: "How should we judge others?" If we typically cannot judge with neutrality, should we judge others at all?

This is a big question that deserves some thought and that I will consider in upcoming blogs.

Notes. One good discussion of judgment in psychological science and applied psychology can be found in Lacey, H. (2003). The behavioral scientist qua scientist makes value judgments. Behavior and Philosophy, 31, 209-223. The quoted passage on psychological science is from Fish, S., (November 9, 2008). Think Again: Psychology and Torture. New York Times on Line (Opinion). Downloaded from:, on Nov 21, 2008. The word "judginess" is intended to be parallel to the recently introduced word "truthiness." As truthiness suggests some aspect of truth, without quite being truthful, so I mean judginess to represent some judgmental qualities without quite being judgmental.

(c) Copyright 2008 John D. Mayer

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