Why We Erroneously Judge Others and How to Stop

It’s funny how our own judgmental attitudes can catch us unawares.

I was recently hosting a meal in my apartment for a large group of both friends and strangers (a common mix when everyone you invite asks to bring a guest). I had spent all day cooking various types of fish and meat and devising several interesting cocktails to serve. At meal time, when I had just finished bringing out all of the food and drink (including a pitcher of water for those folk not tempted by the stronger beverages), one of the new guests—let’s call him Joe—came over to me in the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” Joe said. “Do you have any soda?”

My initial reaction? Disgust. Judgement.

Why would someone ask for soda? Doesn’t he know how unhealthy that stuff is? And he just supposed that I would have some?

Stop. Pause. Think.

Why am I experiencing these feelings?

Possible options:

  1. In recent years I have been extremely focused on health and nutrition. I view soda as one mankind’s all-time worst inventions and one of the leading causes of health problems in this country.
    1. His desire for it still has no impact on me. Why should it affect my emotional state?
    2. I view the world through my own lens. If I have trained myself to be disgusted by it then I am disgusted by anyone else wanting it.
  2. I was affected by his presumption about me. Why would he think I had soda? Me, who has self -defined as someone who doesn’t drink it? Shouldn’t this person who I just met realize that??
  3. I had worked really hard to prepare a fancy meal, drinks included. Was everything that I made so inadequate that he needed to request something so low-class?

Examining all of these explanations, I realize that the truth is really a combination of all of them.

Here’s why I am a hypocrite.

  1. I did have soda in my fridge. Why? Because I needed it for one of my cocktails. Which means there was in fact some soda out on the table.
  2. Not only was I serving soda, I was serving alcohol. Which, even though I drink it (the complete reasons for which will be left for another post), I acknowledge is not healthy.

How could I have had such a negative, judgmental reaction to his desire for soda when my own beverage choices for the night were arguably worse?

The Problem

It is impossible to be perfectly rational.

Much as some of us would like to make that claim (myself being the first offender), there just isn’t time to stop and think about every situation we encounter in a proper analytical manner. Instead we rely on complex mental models that we build up that are capable or recognizing a given situation, comparing it to the existing model, and instantly spitting out a best-fit answer.

Examples of common types of model-solution situations are “I am a Republican, therefore I will not vote for that Democrat, even though I haven’t closely examined his entire platform and personality in such a manner as to be able to make a well-informed decision.” Or, “I am a strong, independent person—I will instantly reject offers for help even in situations where that help is needed.”

Digging us still deeper into this trench of self-misdirection is our tendency to project our own mental models on others. Rather than make a conscious effort to see a situation from their point of view, we consistently default to thinking “I would never do such a thing, so how could they?”

This is the trap that I fell into.

I have a mental model of myself as a healthy person. Even though that model comes with certain caveats (e.g. drinking alcohol, occasional eating baked goods, etc.), it also comes with certain hard and fast rules. These include avoiding hydrogenated fats like the plague and never drinking plain soda. When I saw Joe breaking one of the rules that I had set for myself, I became angry.

But what if this Joe was also a very healthy person? Maybe during the week he eats even healthier than I do, but one of his personal exceptions is that he allows himself a single glass of soda on Friday nights.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But why should it matter to me?

The Solution

I don’t believe that it is possible to fully eliminate this type of unconscious judgement from our psyches. We can, however, learn to reign it in and mitigate its effect on our thoughts and behavior.

For a while now I have been working to instill in myself the following habit:

Cue: Any time I experience a negative emotion targeted at someone else.

Routine: Stop. Pause. Think. Why am I experiencing this emotion? Which of my own mental models could I be projecting? Could there be any situation at all that I can think of where if I knew his perspective then I would no longer be upset? If so, assume as the default that that situation is the current one.

Reward: Eliminating negative emotions leads to reduced stress and increased happiness.


TL;DR — Someone asked me for soda. I got mad. Realized I was being a hypocrite. Resolved to eliminate that type of thinking. Gave him soda. Went and drank a cocktail.