AMERICA’S FAVORITE PASTIME: JUDGMENT -Re-post of a blog by Dr. Randall Wilson and commentary
As an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy) expert who uses ACT both in my workplace coaching and in my private psychotherapy practice, I am really grateful for the recent post Randall Wilson made to his blog site. With his permission, I am re-posting it below and attaching a link to his site. Randy’s post is a really important in helping us grasp why we humans are so inclined to negative thinking and to judgment with which we were originally “programmed” for our safety back in the days when we were cave dwelling hunters and gatherers. However,both of these “programs” now hurt our ability to be relational and limit our range of choices. Non-judgment is a fundamental part of psychological flexibility, which allows us to be present in the moment, allow our internal experiences to run their course within us as we notice them without having to act on them, to accept whatever is happening in our environment and to be able to take values-based committed action that leads us to the fulfillment of our long and short-term goals. We it allows us to move toward what we want to have happen in our lives rather than move away from our goals. Our ability to be psychologically flexible, whether in our professional or private lives, is closely linked to our levels of adult maturity. When we can train ourselves to be psychologicall flexible, we can easily live our lives from a state of choice, equanimity and balance. This is a really powerful place. Tbe problem with judgment is that, once we have judged, the field of possibility is no longer open to us. We can no longer take a psychologically flexible stance. Randy challenges us to go on a judgment free diet. It’s really hard but an eye opener as to how much of my thinking is judgment based. A very important read for everyone. Here is the link:
Here is a re-post of Randy’s blog:
America’s Favorite Pastime: Judgment
Every animal has its specialty. Birds have mastered flying. Bees have mastered honey. Dogs have mastered smelling (you might say they specialize in both forms of the word). Human beings have mastered the art of judging. We can judge, evaluate, and compare literally everything. Take a minute to look over the room that you are sitting in right now and see if there’s a single object that you can’t evaluate and critique. “This chair could be more comfortable, that printer got jammed last week, my cell phone is already outdated, this carpet has a stain over there in the corner…”
If it were only objects that we judged, there might not be any downside to it. After all, it is this skill of judging and evaluating that has allowed us to create better tools, build better shelters, and eventually take over the planet. But it doesn’t stop with objects. If you try the exercise above using people, instead of objects, you’ll find it’s just as easy. “He’s too fat, she’s not very smart, I don’t like his voice, she’s nice but she has that weird thing above her eye, those people are lazy, that guy is just a BAD person….”
And lastly, it doesn’t stop with other people. Try turning your attention inward for a moment and asking “What don’t I like about myself?” And watch the judgment flow. No one knows you better than you, which means you have far more material to judge yourself with than any one else. Past mistakes, embarrassments, your appearance, life-goals that you’ve come short of… All of this can be immediately brought to the surface for evaluation.
Modern behaviorism has something to say about how our use of judging has become so widespread. At the core of human language and thinking are a set of skills called “relational skills.” This refers to our learned ability, as human beings, to respond or react to anything around us based on its relationship to other things. The first type of relational skill we learn as young children is to respond to spoken words as though they are the same as the things they refer to. For example, learning to respond to the spoken word “apple,” as though it is the same as a real apple, and vice verse. We can think of this as learning the relation of “the same as.” As we develop, we learn a variety of other relations besides “the same as,” such as “different from,””the opposite of,” “behind/in front of” and many others. And somewhere along the line, we learn the relational skills that are seen in judging, such as “better than / worse than,” and “more than / less than.”
What makes relational skills so remarkable, is that once we get good enough at this skill, we can begin relating anything to anything, and by doing so, we can learn incredibly quickly and without relying on trial and error. For example: If a child doesn’t know what a ship is, the parent can simply take something that the child does know, and relate a ship to that: “A ship is THE SAME AS a boat.” Just like that, the child now knows what a ship is, and she didn’t have to go see a real ship in order to to learn it. This is the same with judging/evaluating relations as well. Someone trying to teach their child the merits of good hygiene can say, “Being clean is BETTER THAN than being dirty,” and this child now knows that cleanliness is preferable, assuming that they were in the mood to listen on that particular day. By relating to dirtiness as being “bad,” the child avoids having to get ill on multiple occasions just to learn that cleanliness works better.
This ability to master relational skills, and then apply to them to virtually everything around us allows us to exponentially expand our understanding of the world around us by naming and categorizing, and by relating the things around us to other things in increasingly complex ways. The relational skill of judging helps us not only to understand the world around us, but to improve upon it and navigate through it more effectively. If we understand that something can be better, than we can take action to make it better. As you can see by our dominance on this planet, this works really well. So well that we soon find ourselves applying it to everything that we come across. Then one day, we wake to find that judging and evaluating has become as automatic as breathing or blinking your eyes.
One last feature of judging that we can notice is that it tends to be biased towards the negative. To understand why this is the case, we can simply ask the question “Which would be more likely to help early humans survive: Judging the majority of things in a positive manner? Or judging the majority of things in a negative manner?” It seems to make sense that if 2 cavemen heard a growling, rustling noise in a nearby bush, and one of the cavemen judged most things positively – “It’s just the wind. I love the wind!” – and the other judged most things negatively – “It’s probably something that wants to eat me.” – one of those two cavemen is going to live longer than the other.
So here we are today, the descendants of critical, negatively judging ancestors, able to apply our negatively biased judgment to literally anything that we come into contact with. Some of our most popular forms of entertainment play on this relentless urge to judge. Ridiculing contestants in the early episodes of “American Idol,” and laughing at the extreme behavior of cast members on the “Jersey Shore” has become an American pastime. Our cars, our phones, our houses, our TVs, our jobs – none of them are good enough. There’s always something better. And if we look beyond these more obvious examples, we can begin to recognize that we are walking around judging the value of other human beings on a nearly constant basis.
Considering our ability, and our predisposition to judge everything around us, I think that we as a species need to begin asking: When does judging and evaluating work well, and when does it not? And more specifically: Does it work well for us to judge the value of other human beings? I’m going to suggest that it doesn’t, for a few reasons:
When we judge the value of another human being, we are neglecting the incredible fact that a human being is more than just the thing that you see in front of you. They are the culmination of millions and millions of past experiences. Their history is more complex than you could ever imagine. And that history is intertwined with the history of countless other people that they have connected with over the course of their life. That person has hurt, has doubted themselves, has suffered, and might even be suffering right now as you look at them. The act of judging the value of another person is an arrogant one. It oversimplifies the complex, historical nature of human beings and neglects far too many factors. And because of this, it doesn’t WORK well. It leads to fear, prejudice, and hate, and it leads us to behave towards human beings as though they are objects.
Another problem with judging stems from the fact that our self-awareness is inextricably tied to our awareness of other people. To put this another way, in order for you to become aware of the fact that you are you (which usually occurs around age 4-5), you must also become aware that the person across from you is their own person. It’s kind of like the way you need to experience darkness to understand light. When it comes to judging, what this boils down to is that the more critical and judgmental we are towards others, the more critical and judgmental we will be towards ourselves, and vice verse. Check this out for yourself. See if it isn’t the case that many of the things you hate most about other people are the same things that you hate about yourself. I & You are 2 sides of the same coin, so not only is judging another human being an act of arrogance, it is a self-destructive act.
For the reasons above, I’d like to humbly propose a way of reining in our skill of judgment. I’d like to propose that human beings be taken off the “approved list” when it comes to judgment. Human beings are not objects to be judged and evaluated, they are complex, intricate, and constantly changing – like naturally made pieces of art – something to be appreciated. We can judge their actions in terms of effectiveness, we can assess whether or not a person’s behavior is dangerous to others around them and protect ourselves accordingly, but to judge the person themselves should be off limits.
Now this is easier said than done. And if you’ve read any of my previous blogs (particularly “Positive Thinking, and Other Harmful Advice”) then you’ll know that I’m not going to simply suggest that we stop thinking judgmental thoughts. It’s not that easy. As I explained above, the skill of judging is incredibly advantageous for us. This means that it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for us to shut it off. Instead what I would suggest is an increased awareness of judgmental thoughts, and a conscious effort not to act on them when they are targeted at other people. It’s difficult, but it is do-able.
As an example of how you could try this out, my wife and I have spent the last month or so attempting to go on a “judgment-free diet” (I have to give her credit for the name). This has consisted of simply catching ourselves when we are acting towards others in a judgmental way, and consciously choosing to stop. Sometimes, on a good day, we are able to mindfully observe judgmental thoughts and refrain from ever acting on them in the first place. But that’s on a good day.
Try this out, and you’ll find that it is a HARD game to play. If you make a conscious effort to observe just how frequently you are judging things and people, you’ll be astounded by what you find. You’ll suddenly become aware of just how much of your time is spent criticizing others. You’ll notice how quickly you give in to the lure of gossip. You’ll notice the tone of disgust in your voice as you describe someone’s flaws, or talk about the stereotypes of a particular group of people. And if you try this out, what you might also find is that when we begin to catch our own judgments in flight, and choose not to act on them, some space starts to open up for compassion and forgiveness. You’ll find that you are better able to appreciate the suffering of others around you. You might even notice yourself feeling love and compassion for complete strangers. You’ll become aware of the fact that they are not objects or things to be judged. There are people behind those eyes, and those people are not much different than you. And as you begin to forgive others for being human, you might find that it becomes a little easier to forgive yourself as well.