Should You Judge Someone's Personality? Now that is a Big Question!

A big question: "...should we judge another's personality?"

Posted Jan 21, 2009

How, and when, should we judge another's personality? -- that is a big question...

Other examples of such questions include, "What is life?" "What is the nature of the universe?" and, in psychology, "Who am I?".

Like other big questions we ask, the answers we give to "...should we judge...personality?" help determine our conduct and how others perceive us. To "judge," in the case of this question, refers to any legal, ethical, religious, and/or scientific appraisal of an individual's psychological status, right or wrong, accurate or not.

The term "personality" in the question refers to the global functioning of an individual's mental systems: The person's mental energy, knowledge, sense of self and social expressions. For some people, those parts work well together, for other people, less well.

Sometimes people refer to judging character rather than personality.  I will use the terms interchangeably in these posts (for more detail on the two terms see the glossary at the end of this post).

People have judged personality since antiquity. Ptahhotep, an Egyptian vizier living c. 2450 BCE, advocated carefully judging another's personality and offered instructions regarding judging others. 

Thoughtful people, I believe, develop a philosophy about commenting on another's character. Before commenting, they will pause and consider, "Is this the time to say something?" and "Is this the way to say it?" Only when the answers are "yes" and "yes" will they reveal their thoughts. 

I have not yet provided an easy answer to the "...should we judge...?" question in these posts -- no ten-point plans for now.  I believe that by first informing ourselves as to the history of the question we can shape our own positions as to when to judge others, according to our own values.  Fully addressing the question, in fact, draws on ethics, morality, law, religion, and other teachings as to how we should behave, alongside scientific issues of accuracy. 

To enrich this journey, this series' upcoming posts will examine religious and ethical teachings about judgments that guide people in their lives -- our wisdom traditions.

The "wisdom tradition" phrase was used by the scholar Huston Smith to describe the most thoughtful and most inspiring aspects of the world's religious and ethical bodies of thought.  Collecting the wisdom of such traditions, Smith notes, is like  "skimming off the cream of...[religious] history." When doing so, the religions "...begin to look like data banks that house the winnowed wisdom of the human race."

Such traditions represent cultural innovations from across the globe, and include Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism, among many others.

It is prudent to understand the wisdom teachings because those teachings have helped determine, in part, how judgments of personality have been valued or devalued throughout history.  Like it or not, wisdom traditions strongly influence, I believe, the degree to which people accept disciplines such as personality psychology and psychiatry -- which trade in assessments of personality.

The question of "How, and when, should we judge others?" has been dealt with by various wisdom traditions since the dawn of recorded history. In the next posts, I focus on a just a few: Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity, although I may touch on other traditions as well.  I have chosen a group that is diverse, but that is lamentably incomplete relative to all the traditions possible (I very much welcome your comments on "judging personality" within other wisdom traditions). 

Wisdom traditions, it is true, were not developed to withstand the rigor of philosphical argument; the wisdom traditions also lack the controlled empirical tests of science.  In compensation, wisdom traditions provide poetic, historical, and often theological accounts that are of great importance to many, and that are rich in human understanding and experience.

The question of "...should we judge...?" has occupied the attention of religious teachers working within Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, and other venerable traditions.  To discuss judging personality without consideration of their work would greatly impoverish the topic. 

Moreover, if those teachers' diverse opinions share some common outlook, might their understandings reflect evolved universals of the human mind?

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Notes: A definition of "big questions," along with a list of those central to personality psychology in particular (but excluding any consideration of "judging others") appears in Mayer, J. D. (2007). The big questions of personality psychology: Defining common pursuits of the discipline. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 27, 83-103, online here.  The quotes and discussion of the wisdom tradition approach are from p. 5 of Smith, H. (1991). The world's religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins 

(c) Copyright 2009 John D. Mayer