Monthly Archives: May 2011

To judge or not to judge

Human’s eyes [the normal ones] are gifted with the rods and cones that enable us to detect light of different colours. We know the difference of gray, white and black. We know the difference of magenta and teal. Some of us are even colour savvy enough to identify alizarin crimson, cadmium red deep, venetian red, etc. In short word, humans’ eyes, naturally, know colour.

However, why in the realm of mindset, humans seem to be wired to ‘see’ the world only in ‘black’ or ‘white’. If it’s not perfect, then it must be a horrible. If one person is not smart, he/she must be stupid. If one person is a narcissist, he/she must be  a bad person. And the most horrid thing is people tend to pass judgment, in extreme measures, only by a sheer amount of ‘gossips’. [Note: What I mean by gossips here is anything that is yet to be proven or tested but believed to be the truth].

One argument is to ‘simplify’ the thought process, to make it more efficient. If one has to really think through about everything, his/her brain will be overloaded. Hence, the tendency is to take any reference (even from the sources / people that normally we deem as dubious), e.g. prejudice available in society.  “People say it’s dangerous”, “people say that this kind of people [race, gender, look] are violent”, “people say he/she’s a kind person, therefore he/she will not cheat on you.”

Yes, it’s efficient, it allows my brain to ‘relax’, but I can’t help but question “is it effective?”. What if I lose many opportunities / chances because I follow this tendency? Ok, zeroing in on people. I observe the tendency of people (even me) to pass judgment to a certain person, even the one they haven’t met personally, based on what others’ say (even though, the source is seen as not a good judge of character). For example, when one parent heard from his/her friend that a male teacher likes to watch porn, his/her first thought might be that this teacher not of a good character, hence not competent to teach [Ok, name a guy on this earth who doesn’t like watching porns – if there’s a guy who claims he doesn’t, he must be in denial or living in cage for years that he doesn’t understand what porn is]. And if the parents decide to have him dismissed for the very reason of protecting their children’s future and actually he’s a warm and polite teacher that can turn their kids to be the winners of Math Olympics, what gives?

The next question might be, how can we become good judges of character? First, I think we should revisit what is character. Is our understanding of ‘character’ valid?

Last week I encountered this brilliant talk by David DeSteno “Insights: The Hidden Forces that Change Who We Are.” In this video, he presented few case studies that challenge our concept of character. For example, we think that it’s impossible for a guy who we think is good, polite and compassionate, goes to church every Sunday and does charity to cheat on his wife. Yet, there are numerous cases that this ‘perfect’ guy turned out to have more than one lover. Is he a wolf hides in sheep’s clothing? Another example, we think that a drug addict can only think about drugs and will not hesitate to commit violence to get a daily injection. However, what if that drug addict repeatedly saves people’s lives, jumping into a river to save people who intend to commit suicide? Is he only coincidentally helpful?

“The derivation of the word “character” comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behaviour is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno

In his video, he presented some research results and scientific argument on the fluidity of human psychology. For those who are interested, please check out this video

I think, in essence, character is of spectrum and cannot be broken down in discrete categories. Therefore, to understand ‘character’, we not only have to broaden our perspective, but more importantly, constantly challenge ourselves not to fall into prejudice and overgeneralise. It doesn’t mean that you have to believe all people, but to be more cautious about our ‘flaw’ as human being, to think twice before passing any judgment.

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