Source: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Source: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Lately I have heard “Stop judging” far more frequently than I like.  The idea behind it is that judgment is bad; that we judge actions and people when we shouldn’t, especially moms.  But here’s the thing:  Judgment is how we live.  Asking someone not to judge is like asking someone not to breathe.  We judge everything we see all the time.  We are probably unaware of it as most of the time we judge things to be acceptable or benign and thus we don’t really give it much thought outside of what we see or experience.  It’s the negative judgments that get our attention.

And they do for a reason.

Negative judgments are there to cue to us that someone or some act is not fitting with our moral code (and hereby I refer not just to the more common form of morality but everything that we can deem ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that encompasses a lot) or the way in which we view the world.  Just knowing people don’t like the same things as us changes the way we behave towards them, leading to lower empathy and helping behaviours[1][2][3]; in short, we judge their preferences and act accordingly.  We judge because it helps us inform how we form our in-groups and how we move forward in interactions with people.  Whether we like it or not, we judge for a reason.

To be honest, though, we have a problem with the way judgment is coming across these days.  For one, people seem to believe no one should be judged for anything and so people take offense far more than they should.  In the realm of parenting, people often feel so insecure about what they are doing that someone judging a specific act or even just commenting on an act (even if not to the person directly) makes them feel horrible.  To me, this doesn’t mean we stop commenting or judging acts.  This means we need to find a way to make parents secure in their parenting.  Because more often than not, secure individuals don’t feel judged because someone else believes, for example, that babies shouldn’t be left to cry-it-out.  Even though it means they may disagree with something you have done and that they feel is a act outside their moral code or worldview of what is “good”.  That means we need a lot more education for parents starting before we become parents.  Children need to be an active part of our society and people need to experience the normal behaviour of children before they have kids.  In short, we need to stop being such an adult-centric world.  (As an aside, even our discussion of mommy wars and judging parents ignores the children in favour of the focus on the adult.)

But I believe there are others reasons why judgment is such a touchy topic today.

First, we are living in a strange time when we have access to so many more people than usual and sometimes our heuristics fail us.  What do I mean?  Traditionally, we had our tribe or village or small town with whom we interacted regularly.  When someone did something that bothered us, we had to address it immediately in order to keep the peace[4].  And as groups work best when kept at a relatively small number, tribes would break off if they became too big and towns split off to form new towns.  After which we have our smaller in-group and larger out-groups again (on a side note, I remember reading about an unbelievably successful company in terms of worker morale which did this; as soon as the company got too big, it was split into two locations so that everyone always knew the people they worked with in order to promote greater relations – I just can’t remember the name now).  These small groups enable us to know much more about people.  We still form heuristics but they are based on very good probabilities of how people will behave because we’ve witnessed it so many times.

But with the internet, we have access to people we will never meet and may never speak to outside of one interaction.  And we know very little about them.  We encounter a behaviour online in the form of a question or statement and we judge it.  Then our brains do what they do best and find shortcuts to create other judgments.  We use our heuristics to determine the us-them dichotomy that we do at birth[5].  Someone says they used cry-it-out (CIO) and we go to all the people we know who have done that (or heard about) and come up with a judgment about the type of person who would do that.  Our judgment may extended from the act to the person rather naturally.  So depending on our experience, we may have no real judgment of the person if our experience has been that a wide array of people use CIO and thus it’s not a basis for any comparison.  Or we don’t judge the act itself as being out of our “good” worldview and thus don’t think twice.  Or we may have a very strong visceral reaction if the people we know who have used it have been either what we view as great or horrible parents (sometimes that stemming from our perception of ourselves).  And our reactions come based on these quick judgments.  Which leads to the second problem…

The second problem is, as I see it, how we’ve been treating these judgments.  We’ve gone to one side saying “Stop judging!” or “Don’t judge!”  Which I truly do understand, but does it help?  Imagine your child comes home and says there’s a child of a different colour at school and they don’t want to be friends.  Hopefully everyone reading this would be horrified and probably immediately tell their child they can’t judge people by the colour of their skin.  Okay, but why?  Sadly, the child has had something happen that has led to this judgment.  Simply saying “No that’s bad” doesn’t help them understand more, but it certainly is easier on us.  The harder part is leading them down to why it shouldn’t matter, letting them discover it.

There’s a wonderful documentary on a teacher in a small US town whose class parrots back that it’s not right to judge people for their skin colour, but when pressed on why, the kids don’t really understand[6].  (Us adults aren’t much better at it.)  So she did what has been called the ‘Eye Colour’ Experiment.  And children learned first-hand for a day what it’s like to be discriminated against for something superficial and it was a lesson that stayed with them for their entire lives.  In a town where racism was still prevalent when they were older, they had internalized the lesson of and it was a lesson that stayed with them for their entire lives.  In a town where racism was still prevalent when they were older, they had internalized the lesson of why.

Although that isn’t done anymore and similar experiments can’t be done for many types of knee-jerk judgments we experience and witness, we can use discussion to try and lead people to understand a different perspective.  Socrates was the best at this (which is why this type of questioning is called Socratic questioning).  You ask people questions that allow them to come to the conclusions themselves.  In judgment, I firmly believe starting with the question of “Why does this elicit such a strong reaction for you?” is the best one.  Especially as it’s a question we can start to ask ourselves too.  Without this knowledge, I’m not sure we’re able to go forward and critically think about our reactions and our interactions with others.  Sometimes it comes from talking to the person in question, but often I imagine it comes from discussion and reflection with others.  But critically looking at one’s own reactions or helping others critically look at theirs (if they are willing, which I hope we all can be), can help immeasurably to become not only more empathic and compassionate, but also to broaden our worldview to encompass the myriad experiences out there.

However, being able to go down this rabbit hole of questioning is hard.  And the focus of the third, and arguably biggest problem in judgments today: People really struggle to accept when they’re wrong.  And judgments are often wrong.  Especially our knee-jerk ones.  And if we can’t accept that they may be wrong, we tend to respond in extremes.  If you don’t want to be seen as wrong, we use extreme language because it typically evokes such strong emotions in others that people start to feel similarly or at least believe there’s good reason to feel this strongly.  (And for some people, based on their experience, they may have good reason for them.)  Political propagandists have used this type of language for ages to influence people.  The term “disgust” evokes such strong feelings in people, they often don’t stop to think about whether an act is or is not fitting of that term, they start to view as that extreme regardless.

Imagine, though, we are able to say, “It’s okay to be wrong”.  How would we approach a challenge of our judgments?  A challenge of our knee-jerk reactions?  I’d like to think that by being okay with being wrong, we can learn.  After all, we can learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes[7][8].  Mistakes can be costly but they can provide us with so very much information, if we allow it.  The rage against mommy wars seems to me to be the idea that everyone must be right.  Personally I don’t buy it.  We’re all human and we all make mistakes.  And sometimes we will be called out on them.  By loved ones, by strangers, or even by our own children.  And sometimes others believe we’re erring when, to us, we are not.  Only through discussion can we come to understand, expand our experiences, and change our frames of reference.

And this is where the whole “Don’t judge” fails, in my opinion, to stop these immediate judgments.  “Don’t judge” tells a person that their immediate act is wrong, but doesn’t explain why in a way that often resonates with the person going forward.  And when these judgments are things we don’t have control over yet (if it’s hit you, it’s done, you’ve had your reaction), it can seem ridiculous to hear not to do it.  But discussion of the reaction, the reasons behind it, and hopefully getting a person to think of cases where it may not be the case can help that person move forward.  And isn’t that what we want?

One final thought.  Lately I’ve seen a lot of people come out fully against any judgment… except in case x, y, or z.  People are quick to say you can’t judge one thing, but another is fully acceptable (including judging someone who has made, according to you, a wrong judgment).  I hope everyone realizes we all have different triggers for our reactions and judgments.  We all have different experiences that have brought us to where we are.  So the extreme for one person may not be extreme for another.  And as such, none of us are “perfect” in this regard.  In fact, I don’t even know what a fully non-judgmental person would look like.  Or if that’s even a standard we want to aim for given the role of judgment in the formation of our moral codes, schemas, etc.

I, for one, get a very strong visceral reaction when I hear of anything suggesting babies aren’t being treated with care, respect, and empathy.  Extremely strong.  I have to look at why, but I know some of it stems from being immersed in a culture where it seems that is the normal view of things, that we are so concerned with parents and ignore the outcomes on infants, and it drives me nuts and I see red.  I will continue to work at it, but I can bet you it’ll happen again.  I hope if you see it, you’re willing to ask me why I’m reacting so strongly so that I can step back and realize I’m dealing with one individual and not society at that point.  I’ll need it.  So might someone else.



[1] Krebs, D. L. (1975). Empathy and altruism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1134-1146.

[2] Batson, C. D., Turk, C. L., Shaw, L. L., & Klein, T. R. (1995). Information function of empathy of empathic emotion: Learning that we value the other’s welfare. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 300-313.

[3] Stotland, E. (1969). Exploratory investigations of empathy. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental social psychology, 4, 271-313. New York: Academic Press.

[4] Diamond J.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  Penguin Group: New York, NY (2012).

[5] Meltzoff, A. (2007). ‘Like me’: a foundation for social cognition. Developmental Science, 10, 126-134.

[6] To view the full documentary, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/

[7] For a nice anecdotal piece from Nobel Laureate Dr. Saul Perlmutter, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/jul/07/rational-heroes-saul-perlmutter-astrophysics-universe

[8] Maxwell JC.  Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.  Maxwell Motivation, Inc: Nashvill, TN (2000).