The other day, I walked into the kitchen just as one of you was sneaking a handful of Oreos from the cabinet. Looking up and catching my eyes (just as they were catching you), you muttered, “don’t judge me,” then absconded to your room with your loot.
While I reserve my right to give fatherly food advice, I would never judge you harshly for stealing the occasional cookie–not least because I know you got your sweet-sneaking gene from me. What I do want to question is the suggestion that I or you or anyone else shouldn’t judge. More specifically, I want to suggest that we should spend less time saying “don’t judge” and more time saying “judge wisely.” Why?
1. Judging is inevitable
Life constantly calls upon us to make judgments based on imperfect information–about what we’re seeing and hearing, who we’re dealing with, where to go next, and more. And we regularly answer that call, whether we know it or not, and whether or not we admit to being “judgmental.” (The research on cognitive biases bears this out unequivocally.)
We shouldn’t be ashamed of this fact. Despite the biblical injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and despite the obvious and serious problems with prejudice, quickness to judge itself is not a bug in our programming. It’s just how Mother Nature built us to survive in a world that’s overflowing with information, even before you add in smartphones and perpetual snapchatting.
The real question isn’t whether we’re quick to judge: All of us are, and those who deny it are just more likely to mistake their own judgments for facts. The real question is whether we go on to judge our judgments.
2. You Have to Judge Your Judgements
In my experience, this is one of the critical differences between people who actually manage to maximize their mental potential and people who don’t. The former are prone to the same sorts of errors as the latter, but they know it and learn to correct for it. Rather than mistaking their knee-jerk judgments for facts, they test them.
They use tools like the scientific method, phenomenological bracketing, journalistic best practices, and good old-fashioned listening to put their initial judgments on trial. Then, in working toward a verdict, they collect and examine additional evidence, revise their conclusions (and admit their mistakes) as necessary, and look for ways to sharpen their future decision making.
Because they begin and even end by assuming they might be wrong, they put in the extra work it takes to often be right. As a result, they have several things in common:
- While they continue to make moral judgments, they start from a position of humility rather than a feeling of superiority, knowing that they might just be wrong (and that, anyway, life is complex).
- While they never completely escape their own prejudices and biases, they learn to correct for them much more often.
- While they continue to jump to conclusions, they come closer to reaching the truth over time.
In short: they don’t stop judging, but they do become better judges. Does that mean that they’re always right? Of course not. Does it mean that they never sneak cookies or act superior or show their own moral weaknesses? Nope. But it does mean that they’ve learned to open their minds and think critically, including about themselves. And it means that they’re at least trying to find the truth, as opposed to just blustering through.
You can and should judge them accordingly. And you can and should judge me, too–preferably before I beat you to the rest of the Oreos.