We’re all guilty of it. Perhaps you were among those who complained about Jane from next door going on two runs a day during the beginning of lockdown, or perhaps you have fallen out with a loved one over their perceived lockdown deficiencies. Perhaps you have shared an angry social-media post about crowded beaches and parks. Perhaps you have ranted to your partner or friends after seeing people sitting too close to each other in public spaces. Perhaps you have grimaced at the jogger who sped by that bit too close to you. Perhaps you have felt paranoid by what others might think as you enjoy your takeaway drink in the sunshine, regardless of whether you’re acting within the guidelines. Perhaps you are among those who felt angry with the Black Lives Matter protesters in the belief that it’s they who will cause a second wave, that they were and are behaving selfishly. Perhaps you have judged them for not waiting until the pandemic has passed until they protested against raging racial injustice. As Grace Dent perfectly put it in a recent Guardian article, spying on others has become our new “national hobby”.
Not all judgemental behaviour is bad. It goes back to the dawn of civilisation – humans being a collective that worked best when members of any given tribe looked out for another. Humans are social creatures who do well when they collaborate. It was safer for us to move in tribes, and any outlier was seen a potential threat. The need for inclusion dates back to cavemen times when it was crucial for our survival.
“This desire to be included is a hangover from our past as a collective,” says the chartered psychologist, lecturer and author Dr Audrey Tang. “It was safer for the community to sleep at the same time because it meant that no one was sneaking into your cave to steal your stuff. We have a fundamental drive to be part of a group. We have always been safer together, and inclusion – even if you are near the bottom of the pack – still means you are part of something bigger.”
Today, healthy judgemental behaviour is a collective pulling together to call out actions that could be harmful towards others. This is a particularly pertinent idea during the pandemic, where our intentions are to protect one another, be it ourselves, loved ones or key workers.
“We are motivated by fear at the moment to remain in line,” says the registered psychotherapist Jane Caro, who runs the Mental Health Foundation’s programmes for families and children. “There is a sense of wanting to police each other and make sure that people are doing as a society what we need them to be doing.”
Dr Adam Moore, an Edinburgh University psychology lecturer who specialises in moral judgement, says that judgemental behaviour serves many functions in human society, but among the most critical is the purpose of sharing information about priorities and concerns, and to rally a community together in a co-ordinated fashion to deal with possible threats.
“Typically, moral judgements are negative – judgements to limit or prohibit others’ behaviour,” he says. “The reason is simple – there are many ways your behaviour can make my life worse, but comparably fewer in which you can make my life better. Simultaneously, making my life better is great but temporary, while making my life worse is possibly fatal and likely longer lasting in any case. A negative > positive asymmetry is pervasive in human (and primate) psychology for this precise reason.”
Although we might have felt ourselves judging others more swiftly or being judged more harshly during the pandemic, the reality is that we’ve always been a judgemental society, for better or worse. The current circumstances have just made it more obvious. There are rules, both tacit and explicit, that we live by, but now – with the government’s guidelines laid out (mostly) clearly – it’s easier to call out those that aren’t adhering to them.
“There is usually more fluidity in the rules we expect people to adhere to,” says Caro. “There are normally subtle ways of judging someone, ranging from racist stereotypes to judging people on their weight. What’s different at the moment is that things are more explicit as we have clear rules. There is no rule saying, ‘if you are above a certain weight, don’t wear a short skirt’, but on the other hand there is a subtle shaming that goes on to say you shouldn’t. The rules just aren’t usually as rigid.”
Dr Tang says any escalation of a willingness to make a quick judgment also comes because we have a very singular focus, rather than a diluted global approach, making it much easier to compare ourselves to one another.
“All we talk about is, ‘How are you in lockdown?’ or, ‘What are you doing in lockdown?’” she comments. “Because everyone is talking about the same thing, it’s much easier to compare ourselves on that one measure. It’s easier to judge. If we were looking at life in its huge, technicolour, multi-faceted way of living, then yes there is comparison, but we’re only comparing one selfie to someone else’s selfie. Now we’re all in lockdown dealing with this, we’re all looking at the same thing.”
The other factor in our quickness to judge is that these are stressful circumstances; none of us chose this, and we have all – to varying levels – had to make sacrifices and change our way of living, which is stressful. Some of us have lost loved ones or have been very ill ourselves. Some have had to manage challenging childcare situations, while others have been dealing with fraught financial worries. All of us have missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, weddings and big events that we were looking forward to. When we’re stressed or anxious, as humans we need to find a release for those emotions and, as Dr Tang says, one of those ways is criticising others because it makes us feel good.
“Venting not to solve a problem but just to vent, actually makes us feel better because we’ve got it out there,” she says. “All this anxiety and high level of stress is symptomatic. If we focus on getting fresh air and being more mindful, it might just allow us the break we need so we don’t lash out. Our physical situation has had repercussions on our mental one and judgement has become symptomatic.”
It’s a theory backed up by Dr Moore – we enjoy that feeling of moral superiority and feeling like we’re a good person or the one in the right. “It gives our self-image a boost, gives reassurance, and provides all sorts of positive emotional and psychological benefits – although there can be some negative consequences too,” he tells us. “People also typically enjoy both winning and feeling powerful or successful. These often coincide, particularly when the issue is one of intergroup conflict.”
The problem arises when we start casting wrongful judgements that aren’t supported by fact, or without having considered the broader context. Sometimes we become so consumed by anger, we fail to take into account nuance – or just the simple fact that we might be wrong in having misjudged a situation. “One thing that’s very difficult for people to internalise is that that intensity of feeling or intuition is not a good or reliable indicator of correctness,” explains Dr Moore. “However, it is a very reliable indicator of unwillingness to admit a mistake. The stronger the feeling, the more you may need to step back and consider alternative viewpoints.”
It is worth considering, he says, what you want your morality to accomplish. “For most people, it is a way of signalling their tribal identity and current concerns, not a framework for actual communication or decision-making for themselves, which is why so often people do not practise what they preach,” he says. “The vast majority of people do not introspect on their moral psychology in any meaningful way; they simply take it as given.”
Unhealthy judgemental behaviour is rooted in various means, and our sense of shame plays a key role. If we shame someone else first, then it deflects from our own insecurities and internal unhappiness, and even our own fears about being judged.
“It’s all connected to our need as human beings to feel OK about ourselves, and if we don’t feel OK or insecure about whether we’re OK, it’s a defence mechanism to put the focus onto others,” says Caro. “So, ‘I will judge you first because it serves as a defence against my fear that I will be judged. I don’t want to feel that feeling of shame that I’m not OK.’
“It feels great to be in that self-righteous place where you stand on your pedestal and look down on others, but it’s not healthy.”
Context is key when we think about judging others. “When friends start to get on each other’s cases, that doesn’t sound like healthy judgementalism. That sounds petty,” says Caro. “We need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before judging anyone.”
“It’s easy to judge without recognising that their situation is different from yours. There’s a lot of inequality with this – this is not an even playing field,” she adds. “There is something about this feeling of wanting to punish, to humiliate or expose or shame that we lose the healthy parts of judgementalism – it then becomes a reflection of our personal psychology and insecurities we have.”
Unsurprisingly, the impact that judgment can have on the person being judged is also pretty damning. “It can be destroying,” says Caro. “It can impact people’s self-esteem and it also taps into any shame processes that might exist anyway from an culminated experience of growing up, perhaps from being bullied or experiences in relationships that can be then re-triggered. It can be hugely damaging. We all have a different level of fragility and resilience, so some people have a thicker skin and might have found a way of letting it bounce off them, but, as a whole, humans need to feel valued, to feel safe and to feel as if they live in a way that is accepted and not judged by others.”
Being judged also has a paralysing effect in that it can stop us from making positive steps forward. Not only does it damage the person being judged internally, but it’s also unlikely to cause the desired effect that the judger was hoping for.
The Black Lives Matter protests and the judgement and feelings that they have provoked require an extra level of sensitivity and contextual understanding. No one would question the ill-timing of any mass gathering given that we are in the midst of a pandemic, but it is more important than ever to really consider the context before forming an opinion.
The researchers Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov said in 2006 that we make up our minds about any given person or act in less than one tenth of a second and even less when it comes to matters that don’t affect us personally. Further research has meant that the general accepted time, which is evident in most marketing and business research, is three to seven seconds (Schaller, 2006).