Dictionaries specify that the word "judgment" refers to the process of forming an opinion after careful consideration. Judgments have their place in a court of law where, by social agreement, authority is granted to a judge or jury to determine whether or not someone's behavior is or is not in accordance with the law. However, while no one has granted us the authority to play judge and jury in our personal lives, most of us make snap judgments all the time declaring our approval or disapproval of whatever and whomever we are observing or experiencing. The problem is that these snap judgments forgo careful consideration, and are typically merely the automatic expression of our personal prejudices and pet peeves. They happen so fast that we often have trouble distinguishing between our judgments and reality, and sometimes we are not even aware of the fact that we are judging ourselves or others. These little judgments, whether we say them out loud or not, are often extremely damaging to those we judge.
Typically, our point of view is built upon thousands of little snap judgments and assumptions we make about who and what we encounter in our lives. This amalgamation becomes so familiar to us that we seldom question its veracity. Here's an experiment for you. Spend about five minutes observing your mind chatter while out in public without judging what you hear yourself thinking. Notice how often you make snap judgments. For example, "He could afford to lose a few pounds," or "I really love the color of her hair," or "Oh, yuck, it's raining." Now, you might say those aren't judgments, they are observations. On closer inspection, notice that each of these statements probably carried with it a level of approval or disapproval, which is what makes them judgments. Observations have no emotional charge -- no personal vote for or against what is being seen or experienced. For example, "It's raining. I'll get an umbrella," has no charge.
Snap judgments are a form of positional thinking -- right/wrong, good/bad, desirable/undesirable. Energetically, each time we make one of these judgments, we are either accepting or rejecting someone or something. When the vote is positive, there is no harm unless it occurs in a relationship where one person's sense of self-worth is dependent upon the approval of the other. When snap judgments are negative, they are a form of emotional pollution and depending on the intensity of the judgment, they can impart psychic violence. For example, just recently, I was with a friend and her husband. She did a few things that annoyed him. While I understood why he was perturbed, I was shocked by the vehemence of his verbal reaction to her. I literally felt my body automatically contract in fear, and his remarks were not even directed at me.
Whether spoken or not, snap judgments have a powerful influence on us and the emotional environment we share. Psychologists and linguists have estimated that about 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, with one UCLA study finding that as much as 93 percent of communication is dictated by nonverbal factors.
Energetically, imagine how much damage all these judgments are doing to people. Consider the overweight man. Don't you think he knows or feels that people are judging him? What would it be like for him if he received an overwhelming amount of compassion rather than judgment? Do you think he would notice the difference?
For many, judgment is a way of life. Did you ever meet one of those people who thinks he or she is always right? They can be very convincing and so emphatic that it can be disarming to stand in a different point of view. Even without an audience, we can be so used to our own points of view that anything or anyone who doesn't agree with us can be immediately seen to be false and be rejected like a knee-jerk reaction, without consideration of possible merit.
Imagine what might happen if we all started to hold ourselves accountable for the impact our snap judgments have on others. What if my friend's husband observed her behavior with more neutrality and saw the situation as a time when he needed to dig a little deeper to access his love for her rather than thoughtlessly attacking her in front of her friend? We always have kinder options available to us. The trick is having the sense to choose them. This takes practice, but just as snap judgments can become a habitual behavior, so can kindness. We just have to choose to be conscious and responsible for our behavior and practice, practice, practice kinder reactions to each other.
A negative snap judgment carries with it some kind of rejection and punishment. It may simply be the act of pulling ourselves back from the other person, creating separation. Or it can involve the spewing of a lot of negative attitude and lack of cooperation, or fists might fly. The kinder alternative is to establish the habit of reacting with greater neutrality by simply observing what is happening and calmly communicating your concerns and preferences with clarity and kindness. People aren't wrong because they don't agree with you. They just see things differently from their point of view. Cultivate an attitude of curiosity to better understand why others look and behave in ways other than what you prefer. You might be surprised how much compassion you feel when you choose to contribute to a safe emotional environment for everyone.
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Imagine you are part of an experiment. You and your coparticipants are shown photographs of two individuals and are asked to choose who is more leader-like. Unbeknownst to you, the individuals in the photographs are real-life candidates vying for a seat in the U.S. Congress. Would it surprise you to learn that the average ratings of the participants in the experiment could reliably predict which candidate would go on to win the electoral contest?
In 2005, I pondered this very experiment, published in Science by psychologist Alexander Todorov and colleagues (1). The results, I’ll admit, puzzled me. Are voters biased by facial appearance and their associated stereotypes? Or might it be possible that uninformed observers can detect the competence of politicians from their faces? In Face Value, Todorov has produced an impressive, well-written, and well-illustrated book that provides answers to these questions and more.
Todorov covers a lot of territory—and not only from historical and scientific points of view. He also discusses the practical implications of snap judgments, which can be very consequential in hiring, voting, and other evaluative decisions. The book is accessible to a lay audience but will especially interest those who do research on facial perception, as well as those who teach the topic.
In part one, Todorov explains why, over the ages, humans have been mesmerized by the notion that we can infer a person’s character from his or her facial characteristics—a practice that he rightly dismisses as a pseudoscience. Physiognomy, he reveals, obtained a veneer of scientific legitimacy particularly in the 20th century because, for all their faults, face-based character evaluations tend to be highly consistent across evaluators.
To borrow from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, those who think it is possible to “find the mind’s construction in the face” will be as disappointed as King Duncan. Inferences individuals make from faces are not at all accurate. Such evaluations—even those conducted by so-called “expert” physiognomists—are lousy predictors of character or behavior.
The second part of the book explains the computation rules that we use to evaluate faces and provides great examples of computer-generated faces to illustrate the descriptions in the text. Facial shape, skin lightness or darkness, the contrast of the eyes (or mouth) vis-à-vis the rest of the face, emotional expressions, and a perceiver’s previous experience collectively guide first impressions, enabling us to classify faces on two dimensions: dominance and trustworthiness. (A larger chin, smaller eyes, and “v-shaped” eyebrows, for example, make a face more dominant.)
We are naturally compelled to make these classifications. When all we have is appearance to infer the behavioral intentions of others, perhaps we are justified in using such evaluations. However, the problem is that we overgeneralize from these initial impressions.
Unfortunately, the impressions gleaned from faces are not only misleading, they often supersede other, more valid indicators of intentions or abilities. Studies have shown, for example, that objective data on the cooperation of individuals participating in a trust game are usually discounted and overridden by how trustworthy they appear.
In part three, Todorov critiques—and correctly so—the contemporary scientific work that has suggested that faces emit valid signals about intent or character. Many of these studies have unknowingly reported biased results or made unsubstantiated conclusions based on flawed statistical reasoning. He also brings to the fore discussions from evolutionary science, although he argues that facial cues may not hold as much meaning in our current cultural and technological milieu.
The final part of the book discusses how humans are hard-wired to attend to faces and describes the brain regions that process face signals. The amygdala, for example, has been shown to respond more to faces than to objects—and in particular to the emotional state of a face. Interestingly, there are even neurons that specifically respond to faces, suggesting that there are neuronal templates dedicated exclusively to processing face signals.
The last chapter explains why contextual information is important to how we perceive other people and reiterates the point that face signals do not carry much credible information about a person’s character or behavioral intent. In the book’s closing pages, Todorov speculates that the reliance on facial cues as shorthand for cues about character arose when humans transitioned from small-scale societies, where individuals’ intentions and reputations were well known to others, to large-scales societies, where members must use every bit of available information to understand the intentions of others.
Overall, Todorov’s book is stimulating and enjoyable. I hope that its conclusions will be disseminated widely and trigger new research, but also that they will influence deciders. Only then will individuals actually be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “by the content of their character.”
A. Todorov, A. N. Mandisodza, A. Goren, C. C. Hall, Science 308, 1623 (2005).
About the author
The reviewer is at the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.
The reviewer is at the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.