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Judging - Are we born with it?

The first principal of Social Etiquette 101 which society tries to engrain in us is: "Do not judge people." And of course we are all too familiar with the cliched age old adage, “Don’t judge the book by its cover." We have always been encouraged to be cordial and non-judgemental, but have you ever thought over the idea that judging may possibly be hardwired in our brains and be an inherent trait? Does being judgmental really just being that we are being human?

Homo sapiens appeared on the planet 200,000 years ago, yet according to evolutionary psychology, people today still seek those traits that made survival possible then - and one of those traits involve making decisions and judgements about people and their environment. Human beings are, in other words, hardwired. You can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists contend, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person. These judgements back then helped human beings to survive as they evaluated stimuli to make evaluations of threats or danger, and today we make judgements to decide what is best for us and to try better understand people and our environment.

According to Evolutionary Psychology, the idea and instinct of making judgements can help to keep you on guard and ready to defend yourself at a moment’s notice. It helps us to perceive threats and danger and be prepared to fight them for our safety and survival. Judging is a natural instinct, and we are all a little judgmental at times. For the most part, we are doing so for survival. We want to surround ourselves with people whom we can trust because it makes us feel safe and secure. We push away those we deem untrustworthy because we fear they may harm us or threaten us in someway. This was also the way our species has evolved, when faced with persons of unfamiliar tribes or territories, they learned how to make the decision of whether the individual could be trusted or was a enemy. When it came to animals and other stimuli, they quickly learned to differentiate between threats and safety (be it for domestication in terms of animals or consumption in terms of food).

One of our heuristics when it comes to making judgements is the appearance of an individual. Our brains tend to be hardwired with a specific face-processing area. This has been demonstrated in experiments where it has been seen that even shortly after birth, babies tend to prefer to look at at a human face as opposed to anything else. Furthermore, it has also been seen that even within their first year, children become more discerning, and are more likely to crawl towards friendly looking faces than those who look a bit suspicious to them. By the time we reach adulthood, we are snap-judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions after seeing someone’s face, often for just a tenth of a second. The first action that we take upon meeting a new person is to use those criteria to judge the person in various ways based on their appearance, personality and other factors. This is an action that we do without even thinking, it almost comes to us spontaneously and when asked to explain our judgement, the factors we based these judgements on are something which we have really never been taught, they are often based off our instincts. One other example of our quick judgements based on simple short cuts related to appearance is how we often judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, associate a chiselled jaw with dominance and perceive those with glasses as being intellectual.

Something else to consider thinking about is our fears and phobias. Although many fears are learned, the capacity to fear is part of human nature and there are many fears which studies have shown such as the fear of certain animals, ghosts, heights, fire etc. that much more common than others across the population. This can be traced back to evolutions given that in prehistoric times, humans who were quick to fear dangerous situations were more likely to survive and reproduce, and this preparedness (or judgement of fear if you’d like to call it) is often looked at as a genetic effect that is the result of natural selection. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, different fears may be different adaptations that have been useful in our evolutionary past. They may have developed during different time periods. Some fears, such as fear of heights, may be common to all mammals and developed during the Mesozoic period. Other fears, such as fear of snakes, may have developed during the Cenozoic period. Still others, such as fear of mice and insects, may be unique to humans and developed during later time periods including during times of the Great plagues as when mice and insects were later considered to be important carriers of infectious diseases and harmful for food crops.

Is there a judgment about judging? We all judge, it comes to us instantaneously almost. We are predisposed to this natural tendency; it is part of human nature. But why do we judge? Carl Jung had once said, “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” Perhaps in a way, this quote sums it all up. One explanation is that judging is easy as we rely on prior information and heuristics and doesn’t require much thinking or reasoning. Our brains are wired to make automatic judgments about others’ behaviours so that we can move through the world without spending much time or energy in understanding everything we see. Neurobiologists on the other hand explain that personal judgement is a natural instinct that can be looked at as a defensive mechanism applied by the brain. Judgment can be explained as an evaluation of evidence or facts to help us decide. It is that little voice inside our heads that tells us to ask that sweet looking woman for directions instead of that young teenager because you judged him that he wouldn’t know. Or when you decide to not pick the checkout line with the young chatty girl because you assume she will be too slow. We judge or evaluate life experiences, situations, things, opinions, thoughts, and people based on the values, emotions and logic we were taught - sometimes we make these judgements consciously while sometimes, they might be unconscious as well. As human beings, we are blessed with touch, speech, hearing, taste, smell and intuition. These senses help us to evaluate every person or situation-in other words, judge.

Perhaps it is not going to be fruitful to ask people to “Stop judging others,” as our attempts will be against our innate human nature and hardwired tendencies. Instead, what can definitely help is to be more self-aware when we judge. We can use that awareness to be more appreciative and compassionate of the world around us, The truth is we will be judging people and our surroundings, either consciously or unconsciously. However, let's also remember that at the end of the day, whether we consider judging to be a natural instinct or not, we should try to be more accepting of individuals and our individual differences as none of us are perfect.


Written by: Yash Mehrotra

May, 2021


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