Our propensity to judge

As humans we have an overwhelming propensity to pass judgement.

Passing judgement is not without its uses. Without the ability to judge, we cannot function; we cannot make decisions, lead others, operate tools safely or even express our creativity. But when it comes to passing judgements on people, I find this is where the uses of judgement often breaks down, becomes damaging and leads down a dangerous path of ignorance.

Before I begin, let me clarify that I am a culprit of the same, and the propensity to judge is something that permeates through every human being in varying degrees. This is not a self-righteous claim of superior enlightenment, but a poignant observation of certain areas in life which I find especially humbling. Among the most pressing is the underclass of the homeless; those dishevelled and dejected figures that you and I walk by every day.


As a social collective, we are quick to jump to assumptions about what leads to such a low, broken state of being. Among the most common presumptions include:

“He got there because he’s too lazy to get a job”

“She made some poor choices in his life, and now she’s suffering the consequences”

“He’s just a druggy and an alcoholic, he doesn’t deserve a home”

There are unlimited permutations of events and choices that can lead to a person finding themselves in this state. Prolonged resignation to alcohol and substance abuse is just one of them, but even then, we do not know what led them to such a state of resignation either. And we don’t know that there is no human who isn’t susceptible to the same, given the right circumstances.

My exposure to the homeless in my previous voluntary work confirmed my suspicions about how simply unjustified these preconceptions were. This article endeavours to provide my own interpretation of the flawed patterns of thinking that lead such preconceptions,  not only of the homeless, but of other people in general, no matter their background or social class.

The biases in life 

“If you work hard, you will succeed”

This is a convenient and comforting notion that is injected in all of us from a young age, but I don’t believe it really depicts some of the harsher realities and inequities in life.

While the evidence is in abundance that a greater level of exertion, hard work and persistence is more likely to lead to a successful outcome, I find two problems with accepting this notion blindly. One, is that hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and wealth and comfort isn’t necessarily preceded by hard work. There is no deterministic equation linking hard work to success. And secondly, it makes us ignorant of the great influence that the silver spoons and favourable opportunities may have provided in our lives.

People aren’t born on a level playing field, nor is a level playing field ever sustained in a given lifetime. Our fabricated societies are fraught with biases and inequities that influence the trajectory of the individual’s life.  A child from poor background is substantially less likely to get access to high quality education, and thus less likely to obtain the same degree of accomplishments than their middle class counterpart. Furthermore, a child in a developing country is unlikely to envision the same dream let alone be exposed to the same level of opportunities to reach that dream as one in a developed country (completely disregarding the microcosmic variations in wealth and opportunity that exist within countries themselves).

There are an unlimited number of influences that can perturb the individual during the course of a lifetime. In almost every disturbed, unlawful individual you will find roots of poor upbringing, abusive parenting or some remnants of a disturbed childhood.

These biases are often dismissed out of our collective inclination to submit to the notion of ‘free will’ and ‘choice’. We assume that, because we all ultimately have a ‘choice’ in the decisions we make, that we are fully accountable for the state of our lives. This is most destructive, and it can lead to the excess self-aggrandisement of the accomplished, leaving little room for gratitude and empathy.

The myth of the culture of poverty

6 studies on how money affects the mind

the MENTAL bias

I hold a theory of what I call the ‘mental body’, which I believe we all have. Our mental body is analogous to our physical body except that it lives in the form of electro-chemical neural networks in our brain. We can ‘exercise’ this mental body by reading, acquiring knowledge and engaging in intellectual activity, but as with physical bodies, mental bodies come in all shapes and sizes; some can be trained and developed more easily, whilst others are genetically disadvantaged.

Just as some people are born with physical deformations, so too are people with mental deformations. It is the middle ground to which we tend to turn a blind eye, and which leads to our propensity to judge and misunderstand those who exhibit behaviours and opinions which conflict with our own. Babies aren’t born with the same neural structure, and they are hardly in conscious control of the personalities and abilities that they may develop during early childhood. Some are more mischievous than others, and  some are more intelligent than others (by the measurements that we have fabricated). Some are more musical, and a few are prodigious.

All these factors contribute to mental biases the influence the individual and his / her decisions in the same was as physical and external biases. Hence, just as excess pride over ones’ appearance can be construed as vanity – so can excess pride over one’s intelligence and mental abilities.

people are not comparable

These biases and inequities in life means people are not comparable.

Therefore, comparing oneself against others, regardless of whether it produces feelings of pride or dejection, is futile.

Competition is but entertainment. It is meaningless unless you are competing with a historical snapshot of yourself, or if the competition is geared towards (whether intentionally or not) a wider external goal, which can include philanthropy, a world cause, entertainment, career, fitness etc. You cannot compete meaningfully or accurately against another human being – who likely has a radically different upbringing, life experiences, mental body, physical body and genetics. Note that this doesn’t mean that you cannot derive any meaningful gain from competition on the whole, but only that there is no intrinsic value in succeeding against another human alone.

So with this in mind:

A fat person cannot be compared to healthy, active person.

A murderer cannot be compared to a clean-slate civilian belonging to the same society – what is to say that you or I cannot be capable of murder, given the right triggers?

A student or child cannot be compared to a fellow student, or sibling.

the RACE OF THE decent and the indecent

You cannot tell the decency of a person by the community or social class to which they belong.

Every community is a microcosm of the collective human population. This means that in every group you will find the decent and the indecent, just as I observed when working in the homeless charity. The majority were decent and grateful, while a few felt that it was owed to them, and a few were obnoxious enough to be asked to leave. One quality that I greatly admired about the charity manager was her insistence on holding the same expectations from these visitors as any other human being. Only those who showed respect and decency were allowed to use the services. They were subject to the same social expectations as everyone else, and there was no room for pity.

This microcosm can be seen everywhere; whole countries, religious communities, cultural communities, social status groups, police forces, armies; any sort of community you can imagine. This is why one can always expect to find rogue police officers, traiter soldiers and corrupt politicians! It’s unavoidable.

Therefore, to pass judgement on a person based on the community to which they belong is futile and unfounded.

As quoted from Victor Frankls’ “Man’s Search for Meaning” , you will only find two distinguishable races of human – the decent and the indecent.


I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this article is a cry of fatalism, but that’s not the objective. What I wish to express is that humans operate within a framework of multiple biases that renders them incomparable to others and invalidates any form of judgement. This isn’t to say that we don’t have control, or a choice in matters of life, but these choices are weighted and influenced differently for each individual.

In fact, I feel that acknowledging this only serves to liberate the individual. We exert far too much effort in competing and comparing with others, when we should only focus on what matters to us. We also expend far too much energy in judging and misunderstanding others, and we become offended all too easily when other’s don’t share the same opinions as us.

These are behaviours that I too find in myself. It is a human condition, and it would be far too idealistic to believe that our propensity to judge can be controlled or eradicated completely. But perhaps, if we strive to introspect more and judge less, we can live more enlightened and enriched lives.

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