Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Judging Others: When It's Bad, It's Worse Than You Think (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

When we meet others we form impressions of them, and they tend to stick. This automatic tendency motivates numerous social practices, such as grooming before a date or rehearsing before a presentation. It can be unfair, of course, to evaluate persons based on their behavior on any one particular occasion, as the behavior may not be representative. Nonetheless, first impressions are easy to form and difficult to overcome.

What's more, there is a well documented asymmetry between the impact of bad first impressions versus good ones. Consider the following: We are quicker to both form and recall bad impressions, and are also more likely to do so. We also tend to be more confident about bad impressions, take less time to arrive at them, and require less information to be convinced of them -- that is, relative to good impressions. Finally, once a bad impression is formed, we seal it away from revision or interference.

'So what?' you might think. Even granting such broad tendencies, it remains an open question whether or not any particular impression is accurate. Moreover, you might think yourself a 'good judge of character', that your initial impressions are routinely confirmed by subsequent data: the initially cold and distant colleague turns out to be just as cold and distant in the end, and those we warm up to tend not to disappoint.

Well, there's room for doubt here. At least two psychological phenomena that might play a role in producing false evidence for our impressions. The first, commonly known as the confirmation bias, is our general tendency to seek or interpret evidence in ways that confirm our previously held hypotheses. Bad first impressions render us more susceptible to noticing future behavior that is bad; behavior that is good is, by contrast, overlooked or discounted. The second is often called behavioral confirmation or self-fulfilling prophecies, and occurs when we treat others in ways reflective of our preexisting beliefs about them, thereby causing them to act in ways that conform to our preexisting beliefs. For example, we might think someone rude, and then treat her accordingly. She picks up on this, feels resentful, and reciprocates in kind, thus confirming our initial hypothesis. What's more, we are often ignorant of our own causal role in this process. In other words, owing to these biases, our initial impressions might be inapt in spite of the fact that they turn out be true!

All this brings me to the virtue of civility. In most philosophical discussions of civility, it is described as the practice of concealing one's negative appraisals so as not to hurt others' feelings, to show outward respect in spite of the fact that others are disagreeable. Here's a nice quote from Cheshire Calhoun:

In social life, there are unending opportunities to find other people boring, disagreeable, repulsive, stupid, sleazy, inept, bigoted, lousy at selecting gifts, bad cooks, infuriatingly slow drivers, disappointing dates, bad philosophers, and so on. The civil person typically conceals these unflattering appraisals, since conveying them may easily suggest that one does not take others' feelings or the fact that they may have different standards to be worth taking into consideration or tolerating. (260)
I agree that there are unending opportunities to make such judgments. I just wonder whether being civil about them goes far enough, and whether we shouldn't instead foster a habit of calling such judgments into question. It seems as though we have good reason to, given the biases above, but then again there may be bad consequences for not being vigilant in our judgments of others.


Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Interesting questions..

Here is a two pronged suggestion that builds on your idea:

First, We should not refrain from judging, but we should undertake practices that would curtail the cause of the problem (avoid the biases).

Second, we should question whether our reactions to people we judge to be less than good are apt - perhaps we should cultivate pity, empathy, etc as apt reactions to those who are *in fact* rude, cruel, etc. (this is intended to apply to run-of-the-mill cases, not nec extreme cases involving plotted murder, etc). This will support the first strategy because being more empathetic, etc. will lead us to pay more attention to the causes of the other person's behavior (which we might be right to judge bad) -- in particular it will help us note the situational factors that help explain why certain dispositions and not others were manifest.

In addition, if these more positive reactions replace the negative reactive attitudes and actions (resentment, "punishment", etc) then our tendency to form mistaken judgments will not be so problematic (given that they linger while we are trying to phase them out).

Finally, I note that this second strategy (replacing negative reactions) might help undercut the self-perpetuating aspect of the behavioral confirmation bias, which you mention.

Brad C said...

Hi Hagop,

Oops! Made a mistake there myself in not noticing that you wrote that post.

Very sorry about that and hope you do not resent my failure - go ahead and judge my action, if not my character!

Anonymous said...

I hate to be crass, but it really depends on how in demand you are. Let's say you are an employer with a very desirable job or an extremely attractive women with countless suitors. You really have no choice but to weed people out based on first impressions, you can't possible give everyone a fair chance at your attentions.

On the other hand, a lot of people seem to take pride in their ability to judge character instantly and act accordingly. I think in many cases, they are just being uncharitable and unfair, and are really just trying to assert their own superiority. They want to act like they are the class of people mentioned above, when in fact, they (and the people they deal with) would be better off if they chose to reserve (or forego) judgment.

The other case is people who try so hard to be forgiving and charitable that they allow hurtful people to abuse them time after time. Even if you can feel sympathy for the rude or obnoxious person, it doesn't mean you should continue to put up with the behavior.

Hagop said...

Hi Brad,

Thanks for your suggestions. (Eric did post the entry, and well, this is his blog, so the mistake was very easy to make :)

Regarding the first, I think it's not a question about refraining from judging per se. In fact, given the tendencies outlined above, I imagine this would be hard to do. I am thinking of taking an ironic stance toward our negative assessments--at least at first--in knowledge of the fact that we have such biases. So, it would be a matter of doing some work once we've already (and rather automatically) arrived at such judgments. This closest thing I can think of in our folk morality that might be a function of this tendency is the call to give people 'the benefit of a doubt'. I like to think of this rather literally--that we should doubt some of our negative assessments because we seem biased in this regard.

So I really agree with your second suggestion. I do think the question here is of aptness or accuracy. And I think perhaps I've overlooked the role that sympathy or empathy can play in this. In fact, there is a virtue in early Confucian thought--the virtue of shu or 'likening to oneself'--that seems close to what you're suggesting here, a kind of sympathetic understanding of the other in terms of oneself. In one passage, it's described as follows: "what you yourself do not want, do not do to others". This suggests refraining from certain things--maybe from being hasty in judgment. (Restraint is a big theme in the Analects of Confucius.)

Perhaps both strategies could work together. To be clear, the first strategy really involves this epistemic point about the accuracy of our judgments, and really only requires a commitment to accuracy to motivate. But this might be helped by sympathetic imagination and, as you say, a willingness to root out other possible explanations of bad behavior.

Does that sound right?

Hagop said...

Hi Ken,

I agree that we often do use rather rough heuristics when dealing with large numbers of candidates and trying to whittle them down to a manageable number. Indeed, having just been on the academic job market, I can say that this was a great preoccupation of candidates--trying to anticipate what might make one a 'victim' of such heuristics--especially given that candidates far outnumber available positions most years.

I think you captured the danger in being overly suspicious or doubtful of one's negative judgments of others--the possibility that they will free-ride on one's charity, or even abuse it. I think this is a real danger, but I would guess that it is comparatively rare, and probably occurs in relationships with people we know well rather than with strangers or 'first impressions'. In fact, if the tendency noted above is robust, we can imagine that one can only be generous or charitable, or doubt one's own judgments, for so long, before they become cemented.

By the way, your comment in the middle paragraph reminded me of this line from Salman Rushdie, and I couldn't help but share it with you (in case you hadn't come across it before):

"We, the public, are easily, lethally offended. We have come to think of taking offence as a fundamental right. We value very little more highly than our rage, which gives us, in our opinion, the moral high ground. From this high ground we can shoot down at our enemies and inflict heavy fatalities. We take pride in our short fuses. Our anger elevates, transcends."

Hagop said...

Also, my thanks to Eric for inviting me to guest blog!

(Yes, I know I should have posted this at the beginning, especially given the topic :P)

Brad C said...

That does sound right to me and only increases my interest in the confucian tradition.

As a fellow marketeer, I also want to say Congrats on the job!

Anonymous said...

It is good to judge others. By judging others we determine what people we will allow into our life and what level of trust we will give to them.

The world is full of judges. We are judged by our credit rating, our employment history, our education and our status. Judging is fundamentally important and only a noble fool, or else someone who wants to get nailed to a cross, would refuse to judge and simply accept everyone.

People do not have equal value. It is crazy to say that people should be treated equally. That will never happen. Some people are just not as valuable as others. That might sound like a nasty or arrogant thing to say, but the truth is that if we had to choose between whose life to save, our mother's or an admitted cold-blooded killer's, aren't we judging to let the killer die? Is that really a bad thing to do, to judge, to evaluate based on accepted norms?

It is important to assign some measure of others worth. Judging is a matter of self-preservation.