Judging People: Why We Do It & How To Stop

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I believe the thought that appearances can tell a story is a good start to being more open about others. It’s interesting to translate those appearances into thoughts about what that person might be like. Judging people can be a hit or a miss. Perhaps if they’re wearing alternative clothing, one might assume that they’re more liberal about their beliefs. Or if they’re reading a thick academic book that they’re a student or a really smart person.

Perception is a subjective, active, and creative process in which we interpret what we sense by assigning meaning to sensory information through which we understand ourselves and others. Several variables influence our perception of environmental variables, our motivations, our past experiences, culture, and daily experiences. It’s no wonder we all see the same thing differently!Michele Chism on Perception

Our perception is really just a slurry of all those factors. It can also tell a lot about your own experience. There’s another layer to this observation that’s good to work on, too. And that’s to make sure that those biases don’t leak into your experiences with that person if you’re trying to build a strong relationship.

What You See = What You Get?

Ever heard the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover?”Actually, when you’re building relationships, I think it’s fine to judge people by their cover, as long as that judgement leads to curiosity. And for strangers, it’s only natural that we have ways to be cautious about the world around us.

If we think of people as books, casting aside a person because you think you’ve seen the same story before can be hurtful in further interactions with them. Some examples of these preconceptions based on someone’s appearance:

  • A girl speaks with a typical “valley girl” voice and is Instagramming her latte at Starbucks. Obviously she’s a basic b*tch.
  • A guy wearing a hoodie, scraggly jeans, and ratty sneakers is sitting on the sidewalk. Obviously he’s a homeless bum.
  • A man wearing a sharp suit and carrying a leather briefcase is checking his Rolex for the time. Obviously he’s rich.
  • A woman is yelling at a store clerk about some trivial issue. Obviously she’s an asshole.

These all seem like cut-and-dried situations when we make quick decisions based on what people are doing. What would happen if you knew these extra details though?

  • The girl acts basic because she still hasn’t figured out how to be herself, and cries every night about it
  • The guy lives in a proper house, but had to get away from his abusive mother today
  • The man is late for an interview for his 1st job since getting out of jail, and the watch is a lucky charm from his dad who died
  • The woman at the store just found out her daughter was diagnosed with cancer and her frustrations are hard to mask

Hold On, Now…

“But wait,” you say. “That’s unfair. How would we even know those details? Isn’t it fine to make snap decisions about others’ lives since we don’t have that info?”

Sure. But when we’re not involved in the life of the person we judge, it can become a bad habit to start classifying people. They get put into buckets since we have no attachment to them. Dangerous, kind, dumb — some parts of the organization do serve to protect us from potentially unsavory people and events. And when it comes to actually taking the next step further after that classification, one can make the mistake of tainting that person’s actual experience with the one they essentially made up for them.

So frankly, I think it just does more good to be compassionate to others whose lives you don’t know.

So I’m A Bad Person?

I think it’s important to note that gathering a bunch of info on your implicit generalizations and collecting detailed notes on your biases will get you nowhere. I’ve done some extensive data collection in the past myself, trying to determine where changes need to be made in my actions. Truthfully, it was a waste of time. All it made me realize was that knit-picking on every single instance where I did something wrong and trying to think up “solutions” prevented me from the real issue at hand. I was essentially looking to create a playbook of what to say in what instance, or what not to assume in whichever event.

The real solution here, and something that I pushed in a previous article, is that it’s not always about refining the method, but rather improving the mindset. And so, I now try and make slow and meaningful changes to understanding my own values. This makes me feel freer to make decisions that I know reflect my true self and feel ok in any thoughts I have about others. It makes me feel at ease knowing that I’m working on treating other people like their own person instead of inundating them with my assumptions of how they should be acting.

But Wait, There’s More

Now don’t get me wrong, why would you need to stop and think twice about what anyone else is doing in this world? Who cares about them since you’re only going to see them for half a second in your life?

That’s all true. One needs to have a measured understanding of how long one should be spending thinking about stuff like that. At the end of the day, those people don’t affect you in any meaningful way. I still think it’s a good exercise in realizing how our biases and relationship with people can affect our perceptions.

In the examples above, it’s interesting to see how our thoughts about a person might soften if we knew some extra info, even if they were strangers. In some ways, knowing even part of someone’s life can truly change an interaction from cold to understanding.

And I really do think this same behavior also applies to closer relationships. How would you feel if you knew that the friend you thought was sometimes an asshole for declining many invites to go out had depression? What would you do if you found out that your SO’s mother died when they were young, and that’s why they feel sad whenever your mother tries to be kind to them?

This unraveling of extra information can help us build a better image of the person’s true self. We slowly eliminate our personal biases of them once we figure out their quirks and replace them with the “correct” personality. That’s why it can be important not to let your personal opinion color the way the other person would like to reveal themselves to you.

Can Assuming Ever Help You?

Well, maybe it’s ok to make assumptions when you’re facing danger. If you saw a shifty-looking dude cross your path in a dark alley, I’m sure your guard would be up. But what would happen if you encountered that same dude in a brightly-lit mall? How about sauntering down a sunny city boulevard?

There’s an article by Mark Tyrrell, creator of various self-help and psychology sites, which outlines some examples (including case studies) of how we can be influenced by our environment, both emotionally and physically. It goes over how these influences can lull us into any state imaginable and hypnotize us into experiencing any condition.

Concerning hypnotism, I can see how those aspects of the environment can become a trigger. It would manifest itself in a feeling, transforming into assumptions when other people are thrown into the equation. At that point, it’s like you’re being hypnotized into acting, which is another discussion altogether. It’s a fun concept to think about though.

It is possible to infer character from features.Aristotle, Prior Analytics

There are many other factors that can affect your perception as well. I’m sure you’ve thought about times when even your mood affected your interaction with someone. In fact, a study was done in 2008 which included some great details on how your own actions can influence the way you perceive others.

There are some other key takeaways from that study that I think are relevant to human interaction, and I’ll talk about them here (without all the jargon they use).

1. We subconsciously assume others’ personal traits.

These classifications happen quickly and automatically. They mostly rely on the biggest factors of perception, like height and weight, gender, or race. However, we also assume others’ emotions, intentions, and even personality too.

Because we can feel empathetic toward certain emotions and behaviors, we can simulate the feeling within ourselves. Then, we assume that the other person is feeling that way too. A simple example might be seeing someone trip and skin their knee. You might think “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt! I feel sorry for him” if you easily feel pain yourself. But if you’ve got a tough skin, you might think, “Well, hope he has a bandaid for that.” Or you could even think “How embarrassing!” if you know you would have felt like running away in that situation.

It’s worth noting that although these reactions can happen automatically, it’s not a bad thing. There’s a huge difference between understanding these implicit reactions and acting on them in a negative way. Really, there’s nothing wrong with asking someone that tripped if they’re okay. But perhaps it might not be best to coddle the person and treat them like an injured baby animal. Even if that’s something you would prefer to have been done to yourself in that situation.

The skill of being able to evaluate a situation quickly and one step removed from these reactions is something that can be built up. Being able to determine the best course of action to maintain an unbiased but compassionate response to whatever comes your way is a good path to take when building further relationships with others. Even strangers. We can assume that the person we’re talking to, helping, or listening to has the power to help themselves. We can’t take that power of choice away from anyone, and (even as a friend) cannot guide them toward a path that they themselves don’t feel comfortable with.

2. How we act ourselves affects how we classify personal traits in others.

The more we perform certain actions, the easier it is to identify those actions in other people and assume their personality. These assumptions can help you identify a range of things:

  • Physical traits or skills and how they tie in to actions. If you lift weights, you might be able to look at someone’s physique and guess what exercises they would have done to achieve their look. If you read a lot, you might assume a person is also well-read if they have a varied vocabulary. Your own skill level in these actions helps you identify traits even faster too. If you’re a black belt in karate then you might know immediately if someone can fight based on just their stance.
  • Mental illness and identifying it quickly in others. If you’ve had depression, you might be able to see more signs of it in someone else than others might. Body dysmorphia may often go unnoticed to the untrained eye. But for a person who’s had it before, it would be much easier to identify. Even high anxiety and stress may easily seen through observation from one who’s had it before. The longer you’ve had an affliction, the easier it is to identify it.
  • Personality traits and their relationship with actions. For example, if you consider yourself to be a confident, leadership-focused person, it becomes easy to see who’s faking confidence. And you can tell who really has their stuff together. Then you can assume that they’re a good speech-giver, great at their job, among other things. And it’s all because you believe those things in yourself.
The danger in these assumptions is that they can turn negative. We can unwittingly dampen another person’s achievements and personality when we classify their actions as good or bad based on our own standards. A good example of a negative classification might be that although you battled depression in the past, you hated who you were. As a result, you dislike any person who you identify as depressed and assume they have the traits of your “old self.” This behavior negatively amplifies the act of assuming personal traits, as it goes a step further into making sweeping generalizations of a person’s entire self. It can be beneficial to work on not letting your own experiences completely take over another’s ability to parse through their own issues.

Even More Studies

One study done at the University of Colorado examines almost 1600 participants and how they judged different personality traits in others:

  • Intelligence can be accurately judged, even when physical appearance is included
  • Extroversion can be judged accurately, but is affected by attractiveness, smiling, and dress
  • Judgments of Neuroticism (tendencies toward depression, anxiety, anger, etc) could not be predicted accurately through a scoring technique (e.g. on a scale of 1-5)

The study concludes: “This suggests that humans can pick up on valid cues towards a person’s internal traits without observing any of their interactions.” All things considered, we do a pretty good job at evaluating other people. The hurdle we face is in how we digest these evaluations.

And So?

So what’s answer to the question of “How do I stop judging people?” It’s simple — start by understanding that everyone is their own self. Once we become at ease with our own selves, we can begin to become at ease with other people, their actions, their personalities, and their intentions too. We can trust that other people are working on themselves too. And we can start to be there for those people to elevate their self-growth in a way that works for them. That’s my philosophy on how a healthy relationship of any kind should be maintained, anyway.

So honestly, there’s no need to start freaking out about paying attention to your every move. I think it’s just a cool thing to learn and talk about!

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.Mother Theresa

What assumptions do you make about people?

Have there ever been times when your biases lead to the wrong assumption of someone?

Comment below!