The First Judgment

I would describe myself as a short man. While I like to think that I have a pleasant face, I would never describe myself as handsome. I wear spectacles – often two pairs — around my neck, and I have a short beard and moustache. I say all this because I am very aware that people make quick judgments about those they meet – and there is a tendency to cling to such judgments despite contrary later evidence. Indeed, even as you read this, you will be developing ideas about the sort of person I am.

This has been important to me in my life since, for various reasons, I have had to speak to many audiences. And I am aware that in a matter of two or three minutes my listeners have formed a view – not only of me but whether I am worth listening to. I write about this because it is only our acceptance that we are vulnerable to such judgments that we may be able to correct our own vulnerability in this regard.

There is a well known story of the discussions between Nixon and Kennedy – on television and on radio. Most people would say that Kennedy was a fine-looking man, while Nixon was, by comparison, dark and threatening – despite his intelligence. When the discussion was on television the audience tended to give the laurels to Kennedy; when it was on radio it was Nixon who got the palm. And plenty of studies looking at voting for politicians, via their appearances, have been carried out in this country.

I do not know enough about accents in the US, but I do know that, in this country, accents – both geographical and social – are an important measurement. I am able to place someone in their social position before they have finished their first sentence. For instance, people with what we would call a BBC accent (it is no longer so of course) are taken to be more intelligent than their lesser friends. I wonder to what extent this is a factor when students apply to top universities. The selectors may be quite unaware of their bias.

Perhaps more ominously, appearance can be important in court. Having a pleasant and attractive face not only increases your chances of bring believed, it gets you better damages if you are suing, and lower damages if you are being sued.

Perhaps I don’t come out too badly. I may be short rather than tall – and there is good evidence that taller people carry a level of authority – and tend to be in higher business positions. And that, I think, is why the ‘short’ Montgomery was so oafish in his demands. On the other, I wear spectacles – which are recognized as a sign of intelligence.

We might wonder why we have this tendency to make, and hold onto, such unreliable judgments. The answer of course is evolution. Our primitive ancestors survived, and so bred, because they spotted early signs of danger. They either had to be ready to fight, assisted by their rush of adrenaline, or escape. Those without this reaction did not survive and so were less likely to breed.

Now of course our brains have developed mightily and so we are able to modify such bad judgments. But to do so we have first to accept that our instinctive judgments are dangerous unless we are ready to recognise them. Once recognised, we are able to modify them. And the greatest danger lies with those who are confident that they have no such prejudiced reactions.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The First Judgment

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // Now of course our brains have developed mightily and so we are able to modify such bad judgments. But to do so we have first to accept that our instinctive judgments are dangerous unless we are ready to recognise them. Once recognised, we are able to modify them. And the greatest danger lies with those who are confident that they have no such prejudiced reactions. //

    The greatest danger? Not necessarily. Waffling interminably is no less dangerous.

    Our brains have developed mightily? Modern man is far superior to everyone who came before? On what do you base that conclusion? Complexity? Homo sapiens does more complex crossword puzzles than did Homo neanderthalensis?

    • milliganp says:

      One of the benefits that society and education has produced over centuries has been the ability to deal with complex knowledge (mainly through memory) and the capacity to concentrate. Certainly the concentration aspect is contrary to the early evolutionary advantages (reading an interesting novel is not conducive to noticing an approaching predator.)
      Recent developments (from TV through to the internet) have successively encouraged us to reduce attention span which is a form of evolutionary reversal and to see threats that probably don’t exist (nobody “liked” my last Facebook post or retweeted my brilliantly humorous comment on Brexit.)
      I’m not sure we’re moving forward at the moment.

      • David Smith says:

        milliganp writes:

        // Recent developments (from TV through to the internet) have successively encouraged us to reduce attention span which is a form of evolutionary reversal //

        I suppose all cultures evolve to privilege certain types of thinking and behaving. Ours seems to be evolving to favor people who like constant loud noise, who are comfortable juggling many little tasks in the air simultaneously, and who are good at learning, memorizing, and retaining lots of complicated data clusters. It seems to have definitively devalued people who find constant noise very distracting, who need to focus on one or just a few things at a time, who learn slowly, and who are poor at tasks that require manipulating large amounts of data quickly. The West is a superficial, complex, highly materialist, and action oriented culture. We seem to be moving ever deeper into dependency on complex machine systems, and it seems to me that that implies that we’re becoming more and more likely to think of everything – including human beings – as disposable objects. And we’re more and more inclined to want continual change, or at least to be comfortable with it. The study of history makes little sense in this environment.

      • milliganp says:

        There is a book, Quiet by Susan Cain; it’s about how reflective people don’t fit in our current society. The perverse thing is that our whole idea of social progress in about inclusion but reflective people don’t fit in this new model. At the risk of seeming excessive, our modern world is a literal hell for quiet people just as much as it is hell for people who would like to be celibate till they find ‘the right person’.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // Now of course our brains have developed mightily and so we are able to modify such bad judgments. But to do so we have first to accept that our instinctive judgments are dangerous unless we are ready to recognise them. Once recognised, we are able to modify them. //

    We’re continually making judgements, acting on them, and modifying them. That’s how our brains work. Feedback. Perhaps you’re saying that today we act less and modify more than our ancestors did a hundred thousand years ago. Maybe, but how could you know?

  3. galerimo says:

    This theme suggests to me that you are talking about one of the great mysteries of our humanity which is language.

    Not just verbal, the way we communicate and receive our presence to one another is truly baffling and amazing at the same time. Brain power and judgement doesn’t quite cut it.

    Prehension and consciously languaging with each other is a deep, deep process that is equally compellingly because of its unconscious mediation of the human presence.

    Not to mention all of our experienced reality.

    Maybe it is better to talk about discernment rather than judgement here – discernment being the process of inclusive observation that continues without having to solidify into exclusions rather thancreatively accommodating conflicting experiences.

    Like lamenting stops short of whinging and expresses real sadness and anger while holding to the truth of regret, sorrow and loss in God’s presence so too discernment can engage all the cellular, emotional, mental and spiritual abilities without having to conclude by excluding.

    What mediates our being with each other, language, never ceases in our brains, that is true but far more than our brains have evolved in the course of the planet’s evolution of which we are part.

    I lament the fact that we reduce our perception to cognition too quickly in order to explain the received, shared and co-creating mystery of language that connects us all. Like the Word of God.

  4. ignatius says:

    //Ours seems to be evolving to favor people who like constant loud noise, who are comfortable juggling many little tasks in the air simultaneously, and who are good at learning, memorizing, and retaining lots of complicated data clusters.//

    I think I prefer the term ‘adapting’ over ‘evolving’ It is hard to see that the frnk survival skills of say neanderthal man were any less developed than the ability to work a chip and pin machine. It is possible that foraging skills, for example, were much more advanced than ‘going to Tesco’ skills.

    Also when we think of the evolving species does it includes mankind as a whole or do we think that the ‘western world’ is ‘evolving’ quicker than the world of the Rain forest?

    The notion that somehow ‘evolution’ is a process of brain cells only seems to me a little reductionist to say the least…I wonder if the area of the brain which dealt with “Hunt Kill, Skin and Use every bit of bison -skills” was any more or less complex than the part which deals with “Learn to drive skills”…perhaps the same ?
    So what we call adaptative skills -problem solving, tool making etc may well account for the process we call ‘evolution’ But anyway we cannot reduce our selves to a group of neurones, or at least we d]do so at peril of becoming self denying to the point of stupidity.

    Rahner is worth reading on the subject of the drive towards the transcendent. For him most of our ‘knowing’ is a gradual realising and actualising of who we are rather than the evolution of ‘new’ revelation. I tend to agree.

    • milliganp says:

      You’ve obviously persisted with Rahner. As you express it, the idea of personal development towards the transcendent seems to fit well with human experience. To some it might seem neo-pelagian.

  5. milliganp says:

    I’m currently helping with a 3 year old grandson. There are times I realise he’s grasped a fairly complex concept and 10 mins later he’s having an emotional meltdown. Being human is somewhere between unbelievably complex and impossible to understand.
    I presume evolution has some role in this but I stand in awe of the individual human, at any and every stage of development.

  6. ignatius says:

    Yes. A good friend of mine is an archeologist with a particular interest in neanderthal development. He recently gave me an article on the aetiology of myth and symbol. In it was the thesis that the process of rational thinking was based upon and intertwined with emotional response. In other words, that which we call ‘rationality,’ is not some seperate and autonomous faculty growing calmly and perceptively within our brains, as if our heads have in them a special doorway giving way to a thermo regulated and pressure calibrated laboratory. Rational thought is a way in which we respond to the emotional component of events. I quite like this thought, perhaps it supplies a partial answer to our proclivity towards weapons of mass destruction and our addiction to pleasure seeking via machines!

  7. ignatius says:

    PS When we mull it over the whole aspect of rationality in language is interesting too. I have noticed for some time now that the language of what is euphemistically termed ‘rationality’and ‘reason’ is in fact and at root a mechanism of power. One sees this par excellence in the arena of political debate where the chief weapon deployed is to evince in another any reaction of anger whilst at the same time remaining ‘calm/rational/reasonable/ ‘ oneself. This approach seems to be one of reasonability but is often passive aggression in thin disguise.

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