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To Judge or Not to Judge

January 31, 2015
'Elephants' by Dominik via Flickr.com

‘Elephants’ by Dominik via Flickr.com

Snap judgments. Judgmental. Judge not. The act of judging gets a bad rep.

At the same time, good judgment is synonymous with prudence and wisdom. What’s the deal?

Judgment is human and mostly instantaneous and subconscious. It evolved to help us see the tiger in the bush and decide what to do. If our judgment was quick and correct, we lived. If our judgment was slow or wrong, we died. But if our judgment was quick and wrong…we also lived. Good job, Mother Nature.

In spiritual care, we are told not to judge, but the truth is that we judge all the time. We can’t help it. Our subconscious judgments form our emotional reactions, thoughts, words, and deeds. The Canki Sutta (MN 95) describes judgment as a precursor to action, in this case, good judgment leads to right action and right understanding and wrong judgment to wrong action and wrong understanding. Yet this is not merely a theological or philosophical position. It is part of our basic human psychology, now reinforced by a host of modern psychological research. What is not apparent on first reading of the sutta, however, is that we are not aware of most of these judgments. They are largely subconscious and affective (emotional) rather than conscious and rational.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2007 book is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, but it might just as easily been called ‘Snap: The Power of Quick Judgment.’ In it, Gladwell describes the “adaptive unconscious” as a part of our brain that makes “very quick judgments based on very little information.” He illustrates how it works with an experiment at the University of Iowa in which subjects played a card game with two decks. The red deck was rigged to deal out a few big wins and a steady stream of losses, leading to a net loss. The blue deck was rigged to deal out only moderate wins, but fewer losses, leading to a net gain. After eighty cards, on average, subjects could explain what was happening, yet their behavior actually began to change after only fifty cards. They began favoring the blue deck, although they often seemed unaware of this. Even more dramatic, the machines to which each subject was connected began to record a physiological stress response as early as ten cards – but only to the red deck. Ten cards in, their adaptive unconscious had figured out the game. By fifty cards, they had a hunch they couldn’t explain. It wasn’t until eighty cards had been dealt that their reasoning brains could describe exactly what was happening; something they had unconsciously discovered seventy cards ago.

Unfortunately, this form of judgment isn’t conscious, rational, or even verbal. It comes more in the form of feelings and emotions, two in particular: attachment and aversion. Before the subjects could explain what was going on with the red deck, they had a feeling about it, a specific aversion they weren’t even aware of but was already influencing their behavior. Jonathan Haidt calls this our ‘elephant.’ First in The Happiness Hypothesis and then further in The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes a two-part mind made up of a rational rider (based in our more recently evolved hominid cortex and pre-frontal cortex) and emotional elephant (based in our older mammalian and reptilian brain). The key to understanding this mind is accepting that the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant ‘leans’ in response to aversion or attachment towards stimuli, and the rider immediately goes to work trying to figure out how to smooth the elephant’s path and get it what it wants. Sometimes it can correct the elephant, but only when the elephant is motivated. It is literally, the five ton beast. Mostly, we are ignorant to the movement of the elephant or that it is really the one calling the shots. To complicate matters, we delude ourselves into believe the rider is in control, when really the rider mostly reasons in response to (rather than to decide upon) a felt reaction. The rider exists primarily as a rhetoritican to explain our leaning to others, or even ourselves.

Of course, we are already familiar with attachment, aversion, and ignorance (or greed, anger, and delusion, if you prefer) in another paradigm. They are often called the Three Unwholesome Roots or the Three Poisons.

Gladwell’s point isn’t that this is good or bad, but that it is adaptive. Remember the tiger in the bush? This rapid functioning of the human brain helps us survive. But, as Gladwell points out, when our snap judgments “go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood,” which is also what Buddhism tells us. Not only can we learn to be more conscious of our instantaneous judgments, but even our unconscious mind can learn to make better judgments. When necessary, we can even interrupt the process.

Many meditation practices are designed to do precisely this. Samatha, or calm abiding, watches the movements of the mind so that we can become accustomed to them and less swayed by them. Our elephant becomes steadier. Vipassana, or insight meditation, helps us develop wise discrimination, to see clearly the causal chains between events and the nature of reality. The rider becomes a better lookout and subtly cues the elephant onto a smoother path. They work together. We become experts of our own minds.

Gladwell calls the ability “to have a much better understanding of what goes on behind the locked door of their unconscious,” the “gift” of expertise. This is because experts  are better able “to reliably account for their reactions,” even when those reactions are somehow flawed. In the non-expert, the process of explaining a preference, decision, action, or feeling can actually alter the content of that initial mental event. Gladwell calls this the loss of “the ability to know our own mind,” and it has been verified and replicated through countless studies and experiments. He likens the development of expertise – whether in food tasting, war games, art appraisal, or meditative wisdom – to psychotherapy, in which the client effectively becomes an expert on their own mind through years of inner work.

Buddhism, in this way, can offer a certain kind of expertise, a psychological system and the language to describe interior experiences and their effects on our behavior and the world around us. Judgments become dangerous when we are unable to pinpoint and deal with the roots of our feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American-born Buddhist monk, highlights a tension between the idea of non-judgmental “openness” and Buddhist teaching that may shed light on this paradox.

It should be noted at once that whereas the school of openness bids us to drop our discriminations, judgments and restraints in order to immerse ourselves in the dynamic flow of immediate experience, the Buddha prescribes an attitude toward experience that arises from carefully wrought judgments, employs precise discriminations, and issues in detachment and restraint. This attitude, the classical Buddhist counterfoil to the modern program of openness, might be summed up by one word found everywhere in the ancient texts. That word is heedfulness (appamada).

He goes on to describe heedfulness as a defense against harm caused by negligence (pamada). Bodhi recognizes that “all willed actions, even our fleeting thoughts and impulses, are seeds with roots buried deep in the mind’s beginningless past and with the potency to generate results in the distant horizons of the future.” A heedful person is one who is both aware of the mind’s capacity for delusion and yet practices careful judgment in order to overcome these very delusions. In this sense, Buddhist teaching is aligned with modern research, such as that explored in Gladwell’s book.

Of course, Buddhism also recognizes the power to harm others through labeling (a form of snap judgment). American-born, Tibetan nun Pema Chödrön, has written extensively on the dehumanizing effect of labels reminding us that they can lead to “prejudice, cruelty, and violence.” When we think “This person has a fixed identity, and they are not like me” then “We can kill someone or we can be indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated on them because ‘they’re just hajis,’ or ‘they’re just women,’” etc. Staying open and curious about others by letting go of our fixed ideas or judgments about them is one way to defend against such harm. Buddhism offers practices to do just that, starting with mindfulness meditation.

But spiritual good can also come from wise judgment. The admonishment to avoid judgment altogether precludes this possibility. American-born, Thai Forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu says we need the “clear powers of judgment” from others because “you can’t really trust yourself to see through your delusion on your own. When you’re deluded, you don’t know you’re deluded. You need some trustworthy outside help to point it out to you.”

We can judge mindlessly according to our unknown aversions and attachments, lost in the delusion that we are doing no such thing – or we can acknowledge that we are doing it, always judging all the time (sans enlightenment) and try to do so with greater heedfulness.

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