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Judgment Freeloaders

Do non-judgmental people rely on others to make judgments?

In recent posts, I have examined three ethics codes as they relate to judging the personalities of others: the codes of the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists. The ethics codes alert their members to be sure to have evidence supporting any judgments of others' personalities, and, in the case of mental health practitioners, to follow the rules of confidentiality, as well as to follow other relevant guidelines.

In this post, I want to consider the problem of not making judgments: for instance, the problem of not pointing out something important about someone's personality or behavior. Being too careful and cautious in judging others can itself become a problem. An over-restraint in judging is something that the ethics codes do not deal with much (or at all). Yet it seems to me that, in certain occasions, not judging someone could be regarded as an ethical lapse itself. At a minimum, those who do not judge others or who refrain from sharing their judgments when those judgments may be informative, might be considered "judgment freeloaders."

Let me define "judgment freeloaders" as those who allow others to make the tough judgment calls about the people around them. True, those who rarely or never judge are liked for being agreeable and easy-going. Looked at another way, however, these apparently agreeable people could be considered as shirking their responsibilities to speak out about the problematic behaviors and personalities of those around them. In effect, they take advantage of others' willingness to judge, criticize and complain -- and in doing so, they let others engage in the social heavy-lifting of judging others.

Let me be explicit that judgments have their purposes: they may provide important feedback to a person (or about a person), and they also control others' public behaviors to some degree, which is the function I will focus on here.

Who are these judgment freeloaders? At times, any one of us might freeload. Think of public situations such as standing in line. If someone cuts in line, the person who speaks up and says, "The end of the line is back there," suggesting the person has just jumped the line, is doing the the heavy lifting and the others in line are the beneficiaries. If two movie-goers are conversing loudly at a movie, it is the audience member who taps one of them on the shoulder and asks, "Could you please quiet down?" or just says "shhhh" very loudly, who is doing the judgmental heavy-lifting. The rest of us who benefit are, in these instances, judgment freeloaders. We have depended on someone else's enforcement of social mores, with no cost to ourselves.

The judger performs heavy lifting in these situations because she publically displays her judgment and by doing so takes a risk as to how others will evaluate her. A number of movie-goers may be grateful to the person who has asked the noisy movie-goers to quiet down. At least a few others, however, might regard the judger as an interfering, fussy or even mean person. The judgment-maker's reputation is on the line. Yet because of this socially courageous judger, all audience members now have the benefit of a quieter theater, and they did not have to take the risk of appearing mean or nasty. Had that person not made and expressed a judgment, the loud talkers might have quieted down by themselves -- or not. Had they not quieted down, then those around them might suffer or someone else would need to step up to shush or to call a member of the theater staff to do so.

Judgmental freeloading can take place in more consequential contexts as well such as when reporting the news. In 2008, the National Enquirer reported an ongoing story that Senator John Edwards, then running for president, was having an extra-marital affair -- an accusation that no other major media outlet aside from the National Enquirer would report. Senator Edwards decried the Enquirer's reports as the fabrications of a tabloid newspaper. To the extent that Senator Edward's affair (which he later acknowledged) and his cover-up of it was a matter of concern to the electorate, the voters benefited. So did all the other newspapers who finally reported on the National Enquirer's sleuthing without taking the risks that the Enquirer had.

Judgmental freeloading takes place in psychological analyses of public figures as well. When Jerrold Post, the political historian and psychiatrist, testified before Congress on the personality of Saddam Hussein, he put his reputation at risk. Post acted as a psychobiographer, but because he also was a psychiatrist, he was arguably in violation of the American Psychiatric Association's controversial Goldwater Rule, which prohibits such judgments. The nation, however, may have benefited from his judgments. Other psychiatrists and psychologists who were informed about Saddam Hussein and competent to judge him but remained silent were, in this instance, judgment freeloaders.

When a few psychiatrists complained about Jerrold Post's possible violation of the Goldwater rule, they, too, became judgers rather than judgment freeloaders, and opened themselves up to criticism. Both Dr. Post and his critics did some heavy lifting in regard to judgments. I believe that Dr. Post ought to have spoken out and that the Goldwater rule is overly restrictive of public judgments of personality.

Judgment freeloaders often appear nice and tolerant of others, which can sometimes be desirable and may work to their advantage. People who make judgments about others, and express them publically, are likely to appear unpleasant or even threatening at times, which may work against their best interests. Yet they can serve the common good when their judgments are informative and correct. The phrase "it takes all kinds," applies here -- non-judgmental and judgmental alike.

To return to the consideration of ethical guidelines and to the consideration of good social behavior more generally, both making judgments of personality and refraining from doing so can contribute to the greater good, depending upon the cirucumstances.

Today's ethics codes face the challenge of promoting the dissemination of good psychological judgments when circumstances call for them, such as in cases of public education and the public's right to be informed, while discouraging judgments that may be reckless and needlessly injurious. Finding the middle ground may depend on an understanding of the purposes that judgments of personality serve -- and the dynamic interdependence that sometimes exists between those who judge and those who refrain from doing so.

The Personality Analyst will be on vacation for the month of August -- see you in September, 2010.


My source on the National Enquirer's pursuit of the story on John Edwards was Clifford, S. (2010, March 8). From rumor to hint of respect. New York Times: Business Day, B1, B7.

Professor Post tells his own story best in Post, J. M. (2002). Ethical considerations I psychiatric profiling of political figures. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 25, 635-646, or, you can read my summary in an earlier post here.

The concluding paragraphs of this post were edited + 30 minutes after posting and again + 3 hrs. A very light copy edit + 12 hrs.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer