Poor judgment


In the popular sassy sitcom of the late 1990s, Sex and the City, one character asks another, "Do I judge?" The other responds, referring to their group of friends, "We all judge. That's our hobby. Some people do arts and crafts; we judge." It's a perfect TV quip -- funny, affected, and short. We are in on the joke; we all know people like this. We have a moment of moral superiority and then move on to the next one-liner. But really, we all sit in judgment. Constantly. We are hardwired to judge, discern, and sort. But we often make quick decisions that are wholly erroneous or half-baked.

When Brokeback Mountain -- the highly-acclaimed but controversial Ang Lee film adapted from Annie Proulx's short story -- was released in 2005, I was in Wyoming and saw the movie in a theater just a few hours from where the story was set. Amid much fanfare and trepidation -- would there be protests? -- I bought my ticket and settled in to the packed theater. Shortly before the house lights dimmed, an elderly man -- a dead ringer for Vermont's beloved Fred Tuttle -- took the seat immediately to my left. I glanced at him, and he nodded his head while touching his John Deere cap in a sign of greeting.

My brain raced: Is he in the wrong movie? Did he wander in by mistake? Is he here to mount a protest? Is he going to disrupt the film? I sat, nervous, pondering his motivations. Before long I was completely engrossed in the spectacular landscape and the heartrending story of two male sheep herders who unexpectedly fall in love in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains in the 1960s.

As the credits rolled, I sat -- like so many in the audience -- deep in thought and dabbing tears with my already damp sleeve. Heath Ledger's stunning turn as the troubled Ennis Del Mar was so spot-on, so haunting, that my heart was utterly saturated with compassion. Later, Australian poet and writer Luke Davies would refer to Ledger's brilliance in portraying a character "so fundamentally shut down that he is like a bible of unrequited desires, stifled yearnings, lost potential." Davies asserts that Ledger's character is trapped in "a world so masculine it might destroy you for any aberration." I had never been so moved by a character in a movie; I sat for long minutes aching for all the men and women haunted by discontent.

The house lights came up. I had completely forgotten about the Fred Tuttle doppelganger to my left. He, too, sat in silence. He turned to me and said, almost in a whisper, "That was real sad. Real sad." Like the laconic character we'd watched suffering on the screen, this old and weathered man could say no more. He rose slowly, nodded his head to me again and shuffled away.

I was dumbstruck. I could feel every synapse in my frontal lobe short circuit as I struggled to integrate new information about this stranger. I had assumed that he could not possibly relate to this film or the struggles of the main characters. My simple, rigid story about him was deeply flawed, and I was now forced to rethink my accounting. We all make these unfounded judgments in milliseconds throughout each day.

Princeton professor of psychology Alex Todorov and student researcher Janine Willis tested conventional wisdom about snap judgments and found that we size up a person's likeability and competence in a mere glance. Todorov explains, "We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many traits we feel are important ... even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way."

Todorov and Willis used timed experiments and determined that we judge people within milliseconds of seeing them. When given more time, but with no further information about a person, we merely solidify our own snap judgments and become more confident in our first impressions about a person's likeability and competence.

Amy Cuddy, professor of social psychology at Harvard University, explains, "Within less than a second, using facial features, people make what are called 'spontaneous trait inferences.'" Our brains do not allow enough time for any weighing of evidence or searching for shades of meaning. But nevertheless our quick judgments are immediately followed by a drive to categorize. Our two main categories for people we first meet? Warmth and competence. These two categories account for 80 percent of our overall evaluations of people.

Upon meeting someone, we size up their warmth first: Will this person do me harm? We want other people to be warm, but interestingly, Cuddy points out, we want others to perceive us as more competent than warm. "We'd rather have people respect us than like us." But Cuddy believes this is misguided: "Social connections will take you farther than respect."

In thinking about that interaction with the elderly stranger in a cinema all those years ago, I realized that I was wholly prepared for a negative exchange because of how he looked. But my millisecond judgments were all wrong. We must give people room to pleasantly surprise us.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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