When should you be judgmental? by Annie Pesskin

Rather than be made anxious by a fact, we prefer to be comforted by a fiction.  Why is this?

Wilfred Bion, one of the 20th century’s greatest psychoanalysts, asked in his 1962 work, Learning from Experience, a pertinent question: ‘When the mother loves her infant, what is she doing it with?’ In this blog post, I am following in the footsteps of psychoanalyst, Chris Mawson, who posed the distinct but related question at a conference I attended. He asked, ‘When we judge, what are we judging with?’ I think that depending on what part of our mind we employ, we can end up with a wide continuum of outcomes, from sensible judgments guiding empathic action at the one end, to extreme prejudices producing harmful action at the other. My hope is that by exploring a little more closely what internal part of us drives which kinds of conclusion, we might be equipped to make better decisions – better for ourselves, better for each other and better for the world we live in.

To get started, let’s remind ourselves of the difference between judgment and prejudice. According to Google’s dictionary, judgment has two classes of meaning:

  1. a) the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions implied by words like verdict, ruling, pronouncement, decision, acumen, shrewdness and common sense; and
  2. b) a misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment implied by words such as punishment, penalty, just deserts and retribution.

Meanwhile, prejudice is defined as:

  1. a) a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience; and
  2. b) a harm or injury that results from or may result from some action or judgment implied by words such as detriment, harm, disadvantage, damage and injury.

Now we know that most of the time, what we pay attention to and how we remember things is largely unconscious, ie. we use sub-systems of the brain which we have trained through repetition so that we can do things on ‘autopilot’. Consider for a moment riding a bike. Having learnt to ride one, you don’t need to remind yourself because you have automated the process. Your brain has developed a system of neuronal firing which coordinates muscles and vision to enable the smooth operation of the bicycle. It wasn’t always so – we can all remember the wobbles when first learning to ride a bike – how hard it was to co-ordinate the pushing off, the steering and the impulsion, for example. But, having learnt how to do it, we do not subsequently forget unless we suffer a traumatic brain injury or develop a degenerative brain disease.

Functional MRI scans have shown that when you are learning a task, you use your prefrontal cortex and hippocami. But after many repetitions of the task, fMRI scans show activity has moved to deep down into the ‘rudimentary machinery of our minds’ (the putamen and basal ganglia) to quote Wendy Wood, a social psychologist, whose book Good Habits, Bad Habits draws on recent neuroscience to give the general reader ways to break bad habits.  So, when we use these ‘deep’ brain networks responsible for implicit or ‘procedural’ memory (like riding a bike) we are being served by sub-conscious neural networks. This includes how we pay attention to things.

Karl Friston, the eminent British neuroscientist, has advanced a compelling theory to explain consciousness, underpinned by Bayesian mathematics, called the Free Energy Principle, in which he argues that what we become conscious of – what captures our attention at any given moment – are stimuli which do not conform to our predictions. i.e. things remain largely unconscious and are processed by our brain at a level below conscious awareness for as long as they do not conflict with our predictions. If and when a stimulus does contradict our prediction, then, at that point, and only then, do we become conscious of it and use our awareness to take action in one form or another.

Consider, for instance, how often (if you drive a car) you have driven somewhere and then cannot remember anything of the driving process – where you changed gear, for instance, or when you braked for a red light. You operated the vehicle on ‘autopilot’ meaning you didn’t need to take up conscious bandwidth to do so. If, however, a small child had stepped out in the road as you were driving and you had had to brake, your autopilot would have switched into conscious pilot: adrenalin would have flooded your system and you might recall in crystal clear detail the moment of emergency braking and what happened thereafter.

Experiments with babies show us that long before we have language, we are paying attention to stimuli which do not conform to our expectations and learn to ignore the multitude of other things that do. For example, babies as young as four months shown bouncing balls on a computer screen will stare longer at the balls which do not bounce – i.e. which behave anomalously. This reveals that Friston’s theory of mental functioning is operating from the very earliest days of our existence. Now why is any of this relevant to the question of how judgment differs to prejudice, I hear you asking?

Well, what if we said the difference between a judgment and a prejudice is the difference between  ‘autopilot’ and ‘conscious pilot’? When we make a judgment, we are evaluating why we view a situation the way we do and what is motivating us to do so. Think of those words associated with judgment listed earlier: verdict, ruling, pronouncement, decision, acumen, shrewdness and common sense. They are all words to describe a process where a person is making every effort they can to evaluate a situation ‘consciously’, by paying attention, to come up with an appropriate action – in a word, to ‘judge’.

In any situation, we can say a priori that it is true that some things are true. Many of these truths are based on maths, logic or linguistic convention. Nietzsche, in his 1873 essay, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, wrote: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms…Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are”.  Aside from being taken up as a postmodern anthem, these words of Nietzsche’s are profound in that they require us to acknowledge that in everyday life we are always dealing with partial knowledge. Our brain may have some direct experience of a situation and we may have imbibed many more ideas about it from our environment (other people, various forms of media, tradition etc.). So it follows that our “knowledge” of any situation is usually based on interpretation and opinion. Ideas about the future are necessarily always projections, conjectures and guesses. Therefore, all judgments, and all actions following a judgment, should really only be provisional, allowing room for change as new data emerges. Thus, if truth is illusive, if not downright illusory, the appropriate judgment should not be, “Is this true?” But rather, “Is this useful in the circumstances?”

Keeping these ideas about judgment in the forefront of your mind would correspond to the way a jury in a criminal case or a judge in a civil case must reach a judgment. They hear the ‘facts’ of the case and this always involves immersing themselves in the nitty-gritty of the detail. They then ask experts, where appropriate, to help them interpret the ‘facts’. Finally, they wrestle with the inevitably partial nature of their knowledge before coming up with a judgment which they hope proves useful – i.e. the appropriate sentence or fine.

Now I am arguing that this laborious and energetically expensive process of judgment corresponds to the business of being ‘conscious’. Given how metabolically expensive (and slow) it is to be conscious, it really should not surprise us that the brain has found a whole lot of quick and dirty ways to speed up the process of judgment. These methods are quick because they are automated, relying on sub-conscious neural cascades of association which have developed in early life, via repetition and reinforcement from our environment. These sub-conscious ways of appraising situations are what I am calling ‘prejudices’. Prejudices emerge from a complex, interacting set of sub-conscious systems which govern thinking. Psychologists have some fancy words for them but they all fall under the rubric of cognitive bias and priming.

A familiar example of priming is just about every advertisement ever made, since adverts rely on creating an association in the brain between a desirable state and the product being advertised. In a Coca-Cola advert, for instance, young, beautiful people are having a brilliant time at a party in some glamorous location (and happen to be drinking Coke). The ‘priming’ effect is to make us, the consumer, think that by drinking Coke we will be able to have that good a time. It requires a lot of repetition (just like learning to ride a bike takes repeated efforts) and that is why advertisers know they have to bombard us at least three times with a message before it ‘takes’ in our brains. Have you ever noticed, for example, how the same electronics, beer or bank brand will feature on the banners at the edge of the football pitch, as well as appearing in every single TV advert break of the match and often as logos on the players’ backs? Advertising Coca-Cola, or any other brand for that matter, across multiple locations and media platforms is what psychologists would describe as a mixture of ‘reinforcement’ and ‘availability’. These are but two examples of cognitive bias, relating to how repeated ideas gain credibility at a sub-conscious level. Another very basic and effective form of cognitive bias is rhyming. Phrases that rhyme tend to stick.  If you were a kid in the UK in the 1980s, you might well remember an advert for a pink, sugary drink, the jingle for which went like this: ‘Umbongo, umbongo, they drink it in the Congo’. I am ashamed to say I remember it still!

Another example of a cognitive bias – a sub-conscious, ‘quick and dirty’ method our brains use – is ‘framing’ meaning how, when and in what context we receive information will influence our willingness to accept it. In his recent book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell has drawn attention to the work of Timothy Levine, whose Encyclopedia of Deception exhaustively examines human beings’ capacity to judge whether someone is telling the truth or not. It turns out that his experiments show we are only able to tell if someone is telling the truth 52% of the time – that is a mere 2% more reliable than pure chance! How a person talks – do they make eye contact, fidget, ‘sound remorseful’? Levine has shown these things are far more effective in shaping our perceptions of whether someone is telling the truth than what they are actually saying – an example of ‘framing’ in action.

Another example of framing which is also known in cognitive bias studies as stereotyping is the white coat effect. Take a group of people into a room and give them a white coat to wear. Tell them it is a doctor’s coat and give them an IQ test. Take another comparable group of people into the same room, give them the same white coat to wear but tell them it is a painter’s coat. Sit them down to do the same IQ test and guess what? The ones who were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat do better in the test than those who thought they were wearing a painter’s coat. The doctor’s coat people are ‘primed’ to be cleverer and hence they are. They are displaying a cognitive bias which has measurable effects on their intelligence in an IQ test! For a wonderful read which explores the ‘stereotyping effect’ in a multiplicity of ways, I recommend Claude M. Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi.

Professor John Bargh of Yale University has examined some powerful priming effects in his experiments. I recommend his Google talk here. In one particular experiment, he asks a subject into a room and introduces them to a stranger. He then asks them to rate how friendly the stranger was. He then does the same with a second subject, but this time he has a researcher say to the second subject, ‘Could you hold my hot drink as I open the door?’ as they follow them into the room with the stranger. Finally, he asks a third subject to hold a cold drink as they walk through the door into the room where the stranger is. What he finds is that the subject given a hot drink to hold for just a few seconds rates the stranger as friendlier than the participant given no drink or a cold drink to hold. I particularly like this example because it underscores how much is going on sub-consciously, such that holding a warm drink for a just a few seconds can sway whether we find a stranger friendly or not.  For a robust discussion on the strength of this research or otherwise, have a read of this.

Returning to our definition at the start of this piece, I said prejudice was defined as ‘a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’. This is true in the sense that prejudice is by definition never actively engaged with the notion that all knowledge is partial and provisional, and that the ‘truth’ changes as the facts change. You can only know the facts have changed if you engage consciously with the situation, since the quick and dirty sub-conscious brain systems, which I am linking with prejudicial ways of thinking, by definition discount the actual situation in favour of beliefs adopted in the past.

Pundits have argued that we now live in a ‘post-truth’ world. With the advent of the internet, our preconceived views are echoed back to us in our cultural silos by algorithyms that can use their harvesting of enormous amounts of data to predict our every political opinion or next planned purchase. Ironically, this use of data is akin to how our brain automates the multifarious stimuli of our environment to build up a picture of how the world is and then makes predictions on the back of it. Both systems ‘automate’ and both systems use new information to ‘learn’ but both, fallibly, cause us to exclude a huge amount of what is actually there in order to confirm what we already believe. This process is defined in studies of cognitive bias as ‘confirmation’ and also as the ‘halo effect’ where information coming from, or relating to, the familiar is given an easy ride. Clearly, in the environment in which our brains took shape, over the last 150,000 years that our species has been around, it makes perfect evolutionary sense for all these cognitive biases to have evolved. Quick-and-dirty prejudices may well have kept us alive. It pays to be paranoid when the world is an unpredictable and dangerous place and to trust what people you already know and trust have told you.

All of which brings me to the inevitable conclusion that we do not exercise free will. In fact, far from it. Thanks to cognitive bias and our powerful susceptibility to priming mechanisms, we must rightly conclude that our ‘prejudices’ determine far more of our perceptions than we realize. So if this is true of our perceptions of the world, what about our perceptions of ourselves? As a psychotherapist, I might say I spend a lot of my time helping people move from living in the realm of prejudice to living in the realm of judgment when it comes to understanding themselves. How we have been treated as babies, infants and children determines our sub-conscious attitudes towards ourselves (and others, for that matter). The child who hears their parent label and condemn them (‘You always try to wind me up!’, ‘You are a bad girl!’, ‘Why are you so stupid?) internalizes their parent’s prejudices. You could say the child of such a parent is literally deformed by these prejudices. This is because the parent’s perceptions of the child sculpt the sub-conscious neural networks responsible for self-perception in the child’s developing brain.

However, if a parent can exercise judgment, rather than prejudice, by taking the actual child in front of them in their particular situation into account whenever they can manage it (I know how hard this is!), then the parent can respond to the child as they are, rather than what the parent fears they are or wish they were. Freud had a name for this aspect of the mind, arguing it was the part which internalizes a set of norms about the self from important influencers in childhood. He called it ‘über-ich’, which Strachey translated as ‘superego’. However, ‘über’ in German doesn’t have the superiority we associate with ‘super’ in English. Instead, it simply means ‘over’, ‘above’ or ‘beyond’. I think ‘beyond ego’ is a better translation than superego because it implies the role of sub-conscious, autopilot brain systems which are, put simply prejudicial thinking, since they developed in childhood but remain powerfully operant in the adult without input from the present day situation. They are the very same quick-and-dirty brain patterns subserved by the same sub-conscious neural networks responsible for cognitive bias and priming.

Prejudiced thinking always involves looking down on the other: taking a superior position vis à vis the person being judged. Have you ever noticed how judging someone negatively also involves raising your eyebrows and, in situations where you find someone or something disgusting, you wrinkle up your nose as well? Both these facial expressions involve putting distance between the person judging and the object being judged (eg. the distance of your nose from the obnoxious thing; the distance of your raised eyebrows from your eyes). Yet as I said earlier, judging, as opposed to prejudice, involves getting mixed up with the messy, present day details just like a jury must hear all the messy, contradictory evidence in a court of law.  Similarly, good enough parenting involves seeing the whining toddler who won’t settle as tired and hungry, rather than as a persecuting and wilfully ‘bad’ child. This form of ‘conscious parenting’ involves the parent making a ‘conscious’ (and metabolically expensive) effort to understand the toddler as physiologically disrupted in a particular time and space, rather than ascribing to them labels soaked in hostility which then endure by sculpting the developing child’s brain areas for self-perception.

The American adage says, ‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his moccasins’. Prejudice makes this impossible – it only knows what it knows from what it once knew. Judgment involves updating our preconceptions with reality as we find it. Looking, listening and evaluating BEFORE we jump to erroneous conclusions.  Amen to that.

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