One of my great joys as a self-help writer is to take a common piece of life advice and pick a fight with it. These ideas have meaning, they have value, and there’s usually a good reason they persist. But if we never challenge them, or give them any nuance, we can slip into problematic patterns while losing the original intent of those ideas.
And that’s why I think you really should judge people.
You want to tell me, “Don’t judge people,” right? Judging people is bad, and you shouldn’t do it. We say this all the time, so much so that you don’t even need to think twice about it. Some of us are so strongly resolved of this notion as to say things like, “I NEVER judge anyone.”
It’s a respectable intention, to be so kind, tolerant, and accepting as to never make snap judgments about others. It’s also complete crap.
Every one of us makes judgments constantly, every day. We judge places, situations, ideas, and yes, people. And I’m here to say that not only is that absolutely okay, it’s actually a really important and healthy thing that we need to do.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the human mind as a partnership of two interconnected systems. He calls them System 1 and System 2.
System 2 handles our deep thinking, complex processing, and evaluation of ideas. It is relatively slow and energy-consuming, but also reliable and accurate.
System 1, largely operating in the more primitive parts of the physical brain, works quickly and delivers assessments and info right when we need them. Its speed is both a strength and a weakness. It functions on limited information and simple rules to help us respond to situations quickly. In other words, it judges. Often to life-saving effect.
System 1 is constantly making judgments to help keep us happy and healthy. Think of when you pull your hand back from a hot stove, startle at the sight of an unexpected animal or bug, jump out of the way of a speeding car, or turn away from rotten food. That’s System 1, making quick-action judgment calls to keep you safe and thriving long before System 2 shows up.
System 2 is reliable, but inefficient. System 1 lacks precision, but makes up for it with speed. We need both of these, working together, for a thriving life.
Is Judging Someone a Bad Thing?
But what about people? Is all this academic-sounding fluff really the same as Beth’s friends sitting around after she leaves, judging her new boyfriend? That’s still a bad thing, right?
Yes and no.
In the sense of the above example, yeah. It’s lousy to use your quick observations and impressions of people to look down on them. If that was all it meant to “judge,” then I agree that we should aim never to do it.
But that’s not all it means. Remember, System 1, our fast-thinking mind, exists to make quick and efficient calls about our environment to keep us safe. And that’s an invaluable device when it comes to interacting with other people.
Judgment helps us spot the difference between a friend and a salesperson on the job. Both may recommend products to us, but we treat those recommendations very differently.
It also helps us spot whether Beth’s new beau is a generally good dude, or someone to watch out for. Because we love Beth and we want her to be safe and well.
When we speak with friends, family, and coworkers, judgement tells us whether the interaction feels normal and reasonable, or uncomfortable and in some way (either physically or emotionally) dangerous. System 2 may acquire more information and adjust these judgements over time, but it’s no less important to have something to work with.
Yeah But Like, You Still Shouldn’t Judge Though, Right?
“But Sam,” you say to me from your comfy spot in your chair (I hope you’re in a comfy chair), “this whole post is just a bunch of obnoxious semantics. You know what people mean by ‘judging’ others, and that’s still a lame thing to do.”
I get it. The pastime of looking down on others is garbage. It does just as much harm to the person doing it as it does to the person on the receiving end, as well as anyone even in the vicinity of it.
But as always, it’s important to be intentional. My plea here is that you separate this insecure lamesauce from the helpful mechanism of reading your environment, including the people you interact with, and watching for important warning signs. Judge, but don’t judge.
I share your aspiration to do well by others, and not senselessly put them down for your own hollow gain. But don’t let yourself or others use the phrase “don’t judge people” to guilt you out of trusting your gut, listening to your instincts, and knowing when something just seems off. Instincts aren’t everything, but they do matter.
If someone you know decides to start dressing in clown pants (and I don’t mean silly pants, I mean full-blown, mismatched rainbow colored Auguste clown pants) for everyday wear, it’s not for you to judge them as lesser than you because of that choice.
But if that same person starts wearing John Wayne Gacy-style, weirdly jagged and pointy-looking clown makeup, and in your heart you know it feels scary even if you’re not sure why, trust your judgment.