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Thursday, October 10, 2019

On Individual Judgment

My child was recently told, in the context of studying refugees, that one should "never judge a book by its cover."  This sounds good - a kind of bedrock universal principle of human relationships - but is it true?  

For example, if you are in an alley and a bedraggled man approaches you holding a knife, should you not "judge the book by its cover?"  Should you take some time to engage him in a thoughtful conversation about his background and possible motivations for brandishing a knife regardless of your initial gut-level instincts to run?  After all, it's possible that this man is actually a Shakespearean scholar, a medical doctor, or a knife salesman offering a bargain.  

Take another example.  Say you are interviewing prospects for a job which entails greeting customers.  A man comes to the interview wearing a leather biker outfit and has tattoos of cobras on his forearms.  Should you spend time and resources to do a fuller investigation of this man to determine whether you might want to hire him? 

Now say it is late at night and you go for a slice of pizza.  The man behind the counter is wearing a leather biker outfit and has tattoos of cobras on his forearms.  Should you spend time and resources to do a fuller investigation of this man to determine whether you might want to buy a slice of pizza from him?  

These examples show there is no universal set of rules underlying some abstract process of "judgment."  Not every judgment has the same level of importance, the same purpose, nor do we possess unlimited time and resources.   In other words, the context or circumstances of a judgment determine the criteria one uses in making the judgment.  The first question is never "how to judge?" but "why are you judging?" The why helps determine the how.


Judgment is the process of making a choice about engaging in a particular kind of interaction. This is essential to human survival, and we are engaged in making judgments almost 100% of the time.  We select a friend, lover, employer, neighborhood, restaurant, doctor, and school based on our judgment of people which involves estimating the benefit and risks of interacting with or cooperating with other individuals in different contexts.  At the extreme, judges and juries decide whether they believe someone committed a crime and what punishment is appropriate.           

If we want to survive and be happy in a social context, we must judge people.  These judgments can involve relatively simple situations or they can mean the difference between life and death.  The level or degree of input required to make a judgment should reflect the significance of the benefit and/or risk of that decision as well as the time available to make a choice.  Are you considering marriage, choosing a hot dog vendor, or deciding what side of the street to walk?  Do you have a year to make a decision or a split second ? Given practical constraints, we must use all the evidence available to us, within a certain period of time, to make judgments.  

If I'm choosing a marriage partner, her views on religion and family would definitely be relevant to me.  If I'm choosing a hot dog vendor, I don't really care what his view on those things are.  However, if I knew the hot dog vendor made millions of dollars from his hot dog chain and was contributing his profits to an anti-American political cause, then I might consider that factor as relevant to my decision.  However, if I was starving to death, and there was no food for hundreds of miles, I would gladly buy his hot dog knowing that dying wouldn't exactly help my long-term political goals.     

The fact that life requires judgment means that we cannot always abstain from judging people based on relativism, however, we should not judge people for no reason - as if the universe has imposed some duty to place our abstract stamp of approval on others. This is arbitary and foolish.  While judgment is necessary to survival and happiness, making good judgments requires understanding that the input factors are contextual, i.e., the reason or purpose for the judgment determines and calibrates the inputs to the judgment. 


While the necessity of judgment is beyond question for a rational person, because people do not always consider the context of judgment, often the inputs into judgment become a matter of great debate.  The debates over what input factors to weigh in judging people often revolve around these kinds of vast generalizations which do not take into account specific context.  

For example, like my child's school teacher, many argue that each person is unique and we should not judge a book by it's cover, i.e., we should not make snap judgments based on an automated synthesis of seemingly perceptual level data, but rather, we should consciously and deliberately gather as much evidence as we can in order to make a judgment of a given person. Of course, this is a completely out-of-context claim.  As the simple examples above show, often its essential and a matter of life and death to "judge a book by is cover," i.e., make a quick decision based on a lightning quick evaluation of perceptual level factors.  

Not only is it not always possible or necessary to gather a large amount of evidence, scientific research has shown that in many instances, your first "instinct" is actually as reliable or more reliable than conducting longer term investigations.  In Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book, Blink, he explores scientific studies that show "how we think without thinking" or how the human brain is able to synthesize massive amounts of information very quickly and render reliable judgments. 

Individuals don't come as some kind of "platonic essence" of rational animal which we must judge on high through universal precepts of good and bad.  People look a certain way for a reason.  They dress a certain way, choose a style, choose levels of hygiene, speak a certain way, choose certain professions,  live in different types of communities, etc.  Our ability to characterize these tendencies is crucial.  Since we do not have infinite time, our brains subconsciously integrate all of this evidence into generalizations that inform our actions - should we run, should we shake hand, etc.  It would be suicidal not to make these judgments.  That does not mean that split second decisions are always reliable, just that there is no "one size fits all" recipe to making good judgments even within similar contexts.  

Sometimes, it might be critical to take one's time and gather as much evidence as possible, for example, in a criminal investigation, before entering a business partnership, or prior to proposing marriage.  Other times, a snap decision suffices.  One thing is for sure, if you consistently make bad judgments about people, reality will see to it that you pay a price.  

In part II, Group Judgment, I will discuss when it is valid or necessary to judge people based on their individual characteristics and when it is valid or necessary to judge a group, i.e., to treat a group of individuals as a unit conceptually.  

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