• Andrew Pearson

To judge or not to judge...

Updated: Apr 6

I have spent much time reflecting on bias and judgement, the latter being a term being used by my teenage daughter every day of the week – “don’t judge”, “you can’t say that”, “people judge me”, the list goes on. I must confess to being biased and judgemental. And while it feels odd “saying” this out loud it is true so I’m not going to shy away from it. After all, this is how we are programmed to be, even you. The bigger issue for me is not that we are, but what we do knowing that we are - how do we recognise it? How do we address it?

Unfortunately, whilst the human brain is amazing it’s not infallible; it processes what we see in our everyday life and tries to detect patterns in this in order to meaningfully process what we’re seeing and make the quick decisions that we once needed to survive. To do this our brain takes a look into it’s memory bank and tries to find a “good fit” for what we are experiencing before us – sometimes this memory bank has lots of stored quality data to rely on and interprets things accurately. At other times, due to traumatic or bad experiences, or simply lack of experiences, we are unable to process what we are seeing rationally or without pre-conceived biases.

Our views on what we are seeing or experiencing in front of us are therefore sometimes an inaccurate version of what’s playing out before us, and because of this our immediate instincts are often mistaken, leading to bias and judgement. Here’s just a few examples:

Many years ago I studied counselling at Birkbeck. Over coffee a few days in to the course I sat in the “oldies” group sharing our collective life experiences and how this has shaped our decisions to study. And how the youngest member of the group, aged just 22, who was chauffeured to the course and sat quietly in the corner, might not last the course out due to lack of experience and confidence. Over time she gained in confidence, recounting the traumas of her childhood and how these were her driving force to stop other children experiencing the same fate as herself. By the time I left the course (returning to the world of pensions) she was moving on to the next level of her training – she was on a mission and I knew she would fulfil it.

The last five years in US politics was more divisive than perhaps ever before. But what was interesting was how easy it was for people to dismiss Donald Trump as being an arrogant deluded narcissist, supported by ignorant racists. Some of this may or may not be true but many of us would have taken views based on a number of biases that we hold true. A similar situation closer to home is the UK parliament. Short snippets from Prime Minister’s Questions are regularly shown across the news media and for many this is all they see, which is why so many people can be dismissive of politicians and our system of government. Take five minutes out to watch any commons select committee meeting and you’ll soon understand the detailed knowledge, insight and challenge that occurs every day to help change your mind.

I have a sweet tooth, which I curb by not buying anything sweet! On telling people this, an issue that to this day I still don’t really understand, the first thing people often say is “you don’t need to worry about that” because the natural assumption is that tall and skinny is healthy and that overloading my body on sweet treats is not going to make a difference. I can assure you being tall and skinny and being healthy are in no way correlated; my parent’s genes had far more say. In fact I struggled to run for a bus until I took up running and cycling during my mid-life crisis.

For better or worse we are all subject to bias, constantly. As of today, there are 175 listed on Wikipedia so I suspect we all have a cornucopia of them swirling around in us – I haven’t checked them all. I believe that to truly learn and grow as individuals we must first try and identify and acknowledge that we have biases as this in itself will help us make better judgements in the future.

I try to make good judgments. And also spend time reflecting back on those that have gone before in the hope that I can both learn and grow as an individual, and be ready and open for the next challenge that comes along. For me, life is one long lesson and learning to accept who I am, recognise my limitations and allowing myself to question my interactions with fellow human beings is critical to me evolving.

If you don’t think you’re biased then I challenge you to take one of the tests in the Harvard Project Implicit series, which can be found here. If you’re open to learn and grow you’re surely curious to take a look – go on, I dare you. If not, then perhaps you should, I’d like you to prove me wrong.

As you read this I leave you with one closing thought: “Before you judge me, walk a mile in my shoes, see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel. Then maybe you’ll understand.” Anon