Tag Archives: #judgement

HYPOCRISY is a CONSCIOUS EFFORT! The Duality of Virtue. Deconstructing the Moral Hypocrite – Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno.

This study examined the processes giving rise to moral hypocrisy, a phenomenon in which individuals judge their own transgressions to be less morally objectionable than the same transgressions enacted by others.

The study provides strong evidence that moral hypocrisy is governed by a dual process model of moral judgment wherein a prepotent negative reaction to the thought of a fairness transgression operates in tandem with higher order processes to mediate decision making. Hypocrisy readily emerged under normal processing conditions, but disappeared under conditions of cognitive constraint. Inhibiting control prevented a tamping down or override of the intuitive aversive response to the transgression.

The detection of a low level sensitivity to fairness transgressions, even at the cost of one’s own potential short-term gain, adds to the growing body of evidence dispelling theories which describe morality as a tenuous and fragile “veneer” laid over a core of selfish impulses. These findings rule out the possibility that hypocrisy derives from differences in automatic affective reactions towards one’s own and others‘ transgressions.

The unearthing of a prepotent negative response to one’s own transgressions, and conversely the absence of an automatic positivity bias, reveals an adventitious relationship between moral judgment and hypocrisy.

Two alternative models of the source of hypocrisy were compared to determine whether hypocrisy results from automatic or voluntary biases. Findings demonstrated not only that participants viewed their own transgressions as significantly more “fair” than the same transgressions enacted by others, but also that this bias was eliminated under conditions of cognitive constraint.

These findings support the view that hypocrisy stems from volitionally guided justifications, and thereby suggest that at a more basic level humans possess a negative response to violations of fairness norms whether enacted by themselves or others.


“It’s vile. It‘s more sad than anything else, to see someone with such potential throw it all down the drain because of a sexual addiction.” Former Congressman Mark Foley on Bill Clinton, 1998, before resigning amidst allegations of sexual misconduct in 2006.

Moral hypocrisy refers to a fundamental bias in moral judgment in which individuals evaluate a moral transgression enacted by themselves to be less objectionable than an identical transgression enacted by others. Of high import for intergroup relations, this asymmetric leniency has been shown to extend to others as a function of their relation to the self: a transgression enacted by a member of an ingroup is perceived to be of equal acceptability to the same transgression enacted by the self, but to be more acceptable than the identical behavior enacted by an outgroup member or non afiliated other.

Although on first blush this finding may seem somewhat unsurprising for groups characterized by long standing conflict (e.g. Isreali vs Palestinian factions), its value lies in its demonstration among emergent groups. That is, moral hypocrisy readily arises even when using minimal groups, thereby attesting to the deep seated nature of the bias.

Given both its apparent elemental status and practical import, moral hypocrisy stands as a phenomenon quite worthy of further investigation. At present, the existence of moral hypocrisy is clear but the mechanisms that underlie it remain clouded. Accordingly, the present experiment focuses on examining the process(es) by which moral hypocrisy emerges.

Uncovering the hypocritical mind

To elicit hypocrisy, we developed a paradigm in which individuals faced a dilemma representing a conflict between self interest and the interest of another. In this paradigm, to be described in more detail below, some participants were required to divide a resource (i.e., expended time and energy) between themselves and another, and could do so either fairly (i.e., through a random allocation procedure) or unfairly (i.e.. through personal selection of the preferred option). They were later asked to evaluate the morality, or fairness, of their actions. Other participants viewed a separate individual, who was a confederate, acting in an unfair manner toward another (i.e., selecting the better option for herself) and subsequently evaluated the morality of this act. We defined hypocrisy as the discrepancy between the fairness judgments for this same transgression when committed by the self or by the other.

By modeling hypocrisy as discrepant moral judgments, we might expect that its underlying mechanisms would operate in a fashion similar to that of any other moral evaluation. Recent research in the psychology of morality has begun to converge on a dual process model of moral judgment. According to this view, an intuitive process is theorized to work in tandem with more domain general, consciously guided processes to mediate decision making. Processes at both levels are sensitive, to differing degrees, to morally relevant events or principles (e.g., cause no direct harm, utility, self protection), with the eventual decision output representing some confluence of the processes. We believe that moral hypocrisy can be understood within this framework.

Conceptualizing hypocrisy as a dual process model, however, leads to competing predictions regarding precisely how these two classes of processes interact to produce the phenomenon. More specifically, hypocrisy could be driven by a discrepancy in automatic intuitions in response to one’s own versus another’s transgressions, that is, individuals might display an automatic positivity bias for their own transgressions relative to others’, with higher order processes simply functioning to create post hoc justifications for “gut level“ decisions. Alternatively, hypocrisy might be driven by differential activation of higher order cognitive processes geared toward justification and rationalization of one’s own transgressions. That is, although individuals might have negative automatic reactions to both their own and others‘ transgressions, they may engage in more consciously motivated reasoning when judging their own transgressions in order to maintain a positive self view.

Distinguishing between these two competing explanations has important practical implications for developing strategies geared toward curbing this disturbingly familiar phenomenon. Indeed deciding whether intuitions should be fostered or overcome hinges upon whether or not people have automatic aversions to their own as well as others’ violations of fairness norms.

Two alternative models

As noted. there is reason to believe hypocrisy could emerge in two ways based on a dual process model of moral judgment. Mounting evidence suggests that humans may have evolved an intuitive aversion to violations of equity, with similar aversions evidenced by certain primate species. It has also been hypothesized that humans have evolved specific social emotions designed to foster cooperation and trust with others, suggesting an important role for emotional responses designed to inhibit selfserving behavior, and thereby to avoid negative social consequences. Accordingly, violations of fairness stand as a strong candidate to engender a spontaneous and immediate negative reaction regardless of the enactor, suggesting that hypocrisy might emerge from more deliberative processes.

Similarly, several lines of research suggest that higher order processes might be employed to rationalize and justify a self enacted transgression. In this case, the intuitive system would favor a more “moral” judgment in accord with a basic fairness norm (i,e,. showing self interest is not appropriate), but conscious control systems might work to generate a more “immoral“ judgment (i,e,. showing self-interest is permissible), that nevertheless may serve to protect one’s self-image. However, when judging another’s transgression, higher order processes should not temper the intuitive response as the motive for self image preservation is not relevant.

Alternatively, recent findings demonstrate that disruption of brain regions involved in cognitive control can decrease aversion to inequity within the context of economic games, suggesting that automatic reactions might be geared toward engendering self-serving, as opposed to fair, behavior. Indeed, this finding aligns with much research suggesting that humans possess an automatic positivity bias with respect to evaluations involving the self. For instance, tests of implicit self esteem consistently reveal a seemingly ubiquitous generalized positive evaluation of self.

In a similar vein. much work has suggested that exaggerated perceptions of mastery and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought. When taken in combination with recent research demonstrating that both motivational states and chronic views regarding one’s abilities, are capable of influencing low level automatic processes. These findings suggest that chronic views of oneself as a moral individual, as well as motives to appear as such, might lead to positively biased spontaneous evaluations of one’s own transgressions relative to those of others.

If it is the case that the intuitive system does not generate an immediate aversion, or at least a lesser one, to an individual’s own transgressions, then hypocrisy might simply arise as a result of discrepant, spontaneous evaluative responses. According to this view, the intuitive system would favor a more “moral” judgment in accord with a basic fairness norm when contemplating other’s transgressions, but favor a more “immoral” judgment in accord with an automatic positivity bias when contemplating one’s own. Put simply, individuals might not be as sensitive to transgressions that bring one immediate benefits. If true, these intuitions would work in concert with higher order processes which would serve to provide post hoc explanations for the behavior.

The present experiment

The present experiment seeks to disentangle these competing explanations. If hypocrisy derives from competition between a negative affective response to any violation of fairness coupled with conscious efforts aimed at justifying the behavior when enacted by oneself, then hypocrisy should disappear when efforts aimed at conscious control are constrained. However, if hypoctisy arises because of discrepant automatic intuitions generated in response to one‘s own versus another’s transgressions, then constraining conscious control should have no effect on judgments of the morality of one’s own transgressions.

To examine this question, we used a factorial design, crossing judgments of self and other transgressions with a manipulation of cognitive constraint: a 2 (Enactor: Self vs. Other) x 2 (Constraint: Control, Cognitive Load). In the control conditions, we expected to replicate the usual hypocrisy effect identified by Valdesolo and DeSteno (2007).

Partitipants who acted immorally (i.e. violated the fairness norm) should judge their own fairness transgression to be less objectionable than the same transgression enacted by another. Of import however, we also expected that reduced ability for controlled processing would alter the relative causal force of processes contributing to judgment, directly addressing the nature of the dual mechanisms underlying hypocrisy. If manipulation of cognttive constraint has no influence on judgments of participants’ own transgressions, it would suggest that the model is one wherein hypocrisy arises from biased automatic intuitions. However, if increased cognitive constraint results in more “moral” judgments of participants‘ own transgressions (ie. one‘s own actions are judged to be more unfair) and thereby attenuates hypocrisy, these findings would suggest that hypocrisy arises from discrepant volitional efforts aimed at justifying transgressions when enacted by the self relative to others.

We expected that the manipulations of cognitive constraint would not influence participants’ judgments of the confederate‘s transgressions, as motivated reasoning processes should not be engaged when judging violations committed by neutral others. Consequently, conditions involving the judgments of others will function not only as a baseline for computation of the hypocrisy measure, but also to show that any effects of the manipulations do not represent global influences on moral decision making (e.g., increased cognitive constraint decreases the perceived fairness of any actions, whether enacted by the self or another).

Some more than others! Humans possess an automatic positivity bias with respect to evaluations involving the self. For instance, tests of implicit self esteem consistently reveal a seemingly ubiquitous generalized positive evaluation of self.



Ninety one individuals (58 females. 33 males) participated and were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions.

Procedural overview

As the load condition procedures constitute minor variants of the control condition procedures, the procedures for the two primary control conditions will be described in detail, with descriptions of the other conditions limited to noting the small differences in design. In all conditions, participants judged the fairness of an identical action, which served as the primary dependent variable. As noted, we employed a 2×2 design, crossing judgments of self and other transgressions with cognitive load. Presentation of all materials and data collection were accomplished using Medialab software.

Control conditions

Condition 1: judging one‘s own transgression

On entering the lab,. a participant was seated at an individual workstation, given a brief introduction to the experiment, and told to begin the computerized tasks. The instructions explained that the experimenters were examining performance on two different types of tasks, and that any participant would only complete one of the tasks. The first task (i.e. the green task) consisted of a brief survey combined with a short photo hunt that would take 10min to complete. The second task (i.e. the red task) consisted of a series of math and logic problems combined with a longer and somewhat tedious mental rotation task that would take 45 min to complete. Following the task descriptions, participants were informed by the experimenter that the research team was also evaluating a new participant assignment protocol meant to reduce experimenter bias. Therefore, certain participants would be randomly selected to make Condition assignments for themselves and others.

Participants then read the following instructions:

In order for the experimenters to remain blind to condition assignments, you must assign either yourself or the next panicipant to the green condition and the other of you to the red condition. Some people feel that giving both individuals an equal chance is the fairest way to assign the tasks.

It you would like to use a randomizer to assign conditions please move to the computer behind you and follow the instructions. The decision is entirely up to you. You can assign yourself and the other participant however you choose. The other participant does not and will not know that you are assigning Conditions.

The randomizer was a computer program designed to assign the participant to the “red” condition following a few demonstration trials conducted by the experimenter in which it alternated between conditions to guard against participant suspicion. The experimenter then left the room to allow the participant to make his or her choice.

After assigning conditions to themselves and another, participants responded to questions regarding the assignment procedure, which were presented as a way to collect opinions on the new protocol. Embedded in a small set of distractors was the target question: “How fairly did you act?” Participants responded to this question on a 7 point scale ranging from “extremely unfairly“ to “extremely fairly”. The session was then terminated and participants debriefed.

Condition 2: judging another’s transgressions

In this Condition, participants’ primary task involved evaluating the actions of another individual who completed a procedure identical to the one completed by the participant in Condition 1. Here, participants were informed that their role was to act as an impartial observer, to provide feedback to experimenters regarding use of the new assignment protocol by other participants. These other participants were in fact confederates.

To accomplish this goal, participants were informed that they would be seated in the room with an individual taking part in an experiment and therefore able to observe his actions and responses to the experimental protocol through the use of a yoked computer. That is, participants would be able to see on their screen what the other participant was reading and selecting in real time. Participants received the following instructions on their screen:

Your computer is connected to the adjacent computer. Another participant will be completing an experiment on that computer and you will be asked to follow along and observe on your screen everything that he reads and does. Note that the other participant will be unaware that this is happening. After approximately 5min of observing, you will be asked to rate the new assignment protocol in terms of clarity and design as well as answer some questions concerning the performance of the participant.

Participants were asked if they understood their task, and if so to click the mouse to connect the two computers. From this point on, they were presumably observing the other participant’s screen and were asked not to touch their computer until it disconnected and automatically moved them along to the evaluations.

After the computers had “connected.” the participant waited in her seat while the experimenter brought in the second participant [i.e. the confederate]. The confederate was told that all instructions would be on the computer and to begin the experiment by clicking the mouse. The confederate then simultaneously clicked his mouse as well as a second mouse surreptitiously connected to the back of the participant‘s computer. The mouse clicks set off a timed presentation which created the illusion that the participant was observing, on her own monitor, the confederate go through the instructions and assign himself the “green” condition and a future participant the “red” condition without using the randomizer. After observing the confederate’s choice, the participant’s computer “disconnected” and brought her to an evaluation section where, embedded in a set of distractors, she answered the following target question: “How fairly did the participant act?” using the same scale as in Condition 1.

Cognitive constraint conditions

Condition 3: judging one’s own transgression

Condition 3 was a replication of Condition 1 with the exception that participants made fairness judgments under cognitive load. The load manipulation came directly after partitipants assigned tasks to themselves and the other, thereby affecting only moral judgment and not behavior. Cognitive load was manipulated using a digit string memory task. Participants were told that the experimenters were interested in how people make judgments when they are distracted. To simulate distraction. they would be asked to remember a string of digits at the same time that they were responding to a series of questions. Participants were told that a string of seven digits would appear on the screen before each question. They would then have to answer the question within 10s, immediately after which they would have to recall the digit string that had preceded the question. Participants were also told that it was extremely important to provide the most accurate answers possible for questions comprising the assignment evaluation measure. The primary dependent variable consisted of the fairness question presented and scaled as in Condition 1 and embedded in the series of distractor questions completed under load.

Condition 4: judgments of another‘s transgressions

Condition 4 mirrored Condition 2 with the exception that participants made judgments under cognitive load, using the same load manipulation as in Condition 3.


Participants in conditions involving judgments of their own transgressions were removed from analysis if they did not commit a transgression. That is, only those participants who assigned themselves the “green” (i.e. preferable) condition and who did not use the randomizer were included in the analysis. As in previous research, those who immediately acted either altruistically or in accord with the fairness norm were a substantial minority. This group consisted of 7 (8%) participants spread almost equally across the two relevant conditions (i.e. Conditions 1 and 3).

Moving to the full factorial design, an ANOVA continued the predicted interaction between the Enactor and Cognitive Constraint factors (see Fig. 1). As expected, moral hypocrisy emerged in the control conditions; the same fairness transgression was judged to be substantially more moral when enacted by the self than when enacted by another. However, constraints on effortful correction (i.e. cognitive load) resulted in the disappearance of the hypocrisy effect: participants experiencing load judged their own transgressions to be as unfair as the same behavuor when enacted by another. Indeed, a planned contrast revealed that judgments of one’s own actions in the control condition (i.e. Condition 1) significantly exceeded judgments in any of the other three conditions, which showed no reliable differences among themselves.


The present study provides strong evidence that moral hypocrisy is governed by a dual process model of moral judgment wherein a prepotent negative reaction to the thought of a fairness transgression operates in tandem with higher order processes to mediate decision making. Hypocrisy readily emerged under normal processing conditions, but disappeared under conditions of cognitive constraint. Inhibiting control prevented a tamping down or override of the intuitive aversive response to the transgression.

Of import, these findings rule out the possibility that hypocrisy derives from differences in automatic affective reactions towards one’s own and others‘ transgressions. Rather. when contemplating one’s own transgression, motives of rationalization and justification temper the initial negative response and lead to more lenient judgments. Motivated reasoning processes are not engaged when judging others’ violations, rendering the prepotent negative response more causally powerful and leading to harsher judgments.

These findings are also noteworthy for demonstrating that controlled processing need not always function to “correct” more basic, intuitive responses, but rather can be subject to less admirable motives such as the protection of self image. Indeed, they show that the interplay between intuitive and volitional moral reasoning is sensitive not only to abstract moral principles but also to more selfish motivations, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of participants who acted unfairly when assigning tasks.

Despite this disconcerting result, the unearthing of a prepotent negative response to one’s own transgressions, and conversely the absence of an automatic positivity bias, reveals an adventitious relationship between moral judgment and hypocrisy. The detection of a low level sensitivity to fairness transgressions, even at the cost of one’s own potential short term gain, adds to the growing body of evidence dispelling theories which describe morality as a tenuous and fragile “veneer” laid over a core of selfish impulses. Instead, it seems likely that humans have evolved strong intuitions which, though selected to promote long-term self interest via reciprocal altruism, can represent moment to moment instances of pure selfless concern.

Yet our hypocritical behavior belies this intuition. In light of such findings, future work should aim to further define the conditions which temper hypocrisy, and ultimately suggest ways in which humans can better translate moral feelings into moral actions.

Success. Or, the paradox of happiness – Susi Ferrarello Ph.D. – Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood – Ziyad Marar.

The moral qualities of someone are as important as their expected competence.

A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

What we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And we can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting.

The judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other.

It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

You succeeded, so you must be happy, right?

It is somewhat curious to think how we arrived at considering happiness as a byproduct of success. Even in such disparate groups as my clients and my students have come to the same conclusion: that successful people must be happy because they reached what they wanted in life—money, power, social status, public acknowledgment.

This means that since happiness seems a reasonable goal to pursue my students and clients tend to imitate those models to chase that success.

My suspicion is that this attitude leads to the opposite result, especially if we do not define the word happiness precisely but rather define it only by its means.

Psychology Today


The Value of Being Misunderstood

Ziyad Marar

So, did you judge this book by its cover? Or were you intrigued by the title? The subtitle? And now you encounter these lines are you drawn in or put off by this attempt to engage you directly? It’s complicated now I think of it. As I write, I’m conscious of different audiences who might want different things and equally that there is no way to deliver on such a wide range of expectations.

Are you judging me? There is a quick heat in the question which is revealing. Implicit in my tone is chagrin and accusation. ‘Don’t be so judgemental’, I’m saying, in a quite judgemental way. To call someone ‘judgemental’ always seems like a negative judgement, doesn’t it? After all I wouldn’t say it after a round of applause, or a compliment. Those more positive appraisals just don’t have the same impact. When it comes to judgement, criticism weighs much more heavily than praise.

Calling you ‘judgemental’ is a defensive move on my part, an accusation that you are being critical and asks you to explain yourself. My question, ‘Are you judging me?’ is loaded with the discomfort of being scrutinized and found wanting and invites me to judge you in return as a form of protective retaliation. I’m asking what your status is in relation to me and what relevance my actions have to you. ‘Who do you think you are anyway?!’

But do I really want you to stop judging me? Sure, right there and then, I do. I want to avoid negative appraisal, so I’d like it to stop. The safer language of ‘live and let live’, ‘each to their own’ is where we turn when we feel exposed to the harsh glare, and wish to escape scrutiny.

But true escape from judgement is a fantasy. How can we live meaningfully without being judged at all? Even criticism is necessary to living well. Without it we’d be playing tennis with the net down. Other people are necessary for our survival on many levels. They are sources of pleasure, goods, information, but most of all they shape our self-image and self-esteem. While it can be painful at times, the judgement of others is also a source of significance and a necessary path to feeling justified. A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

Alongside the tribulations and unfairnesses of critical judgement lies the tentative hope for kinder appraisals. Raymond Carver, in the poem ‘Late Fragment’, written at the end of his life, concluded that he got what he wanted from this life, namely ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ With Carver we want to feel beloved or at least admired, or respected or just recognized. So, what we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And I can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting, quite independently of that hope. I don’t want your charity, or sympathy, or to turn you into a puppet or to generate mere canned applause. It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

The psychoanalyst Leslie Farber describes our attempts at willing what cannot be willed. His examples (I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping, eating, but not hunger, meekness, but not humility . . . ) are troubling enough. But this is worse. In the case of receiving good judgement, even if I could will it to happen, the judgement resulting wouldn’t be worth having. If there is no attendant risk of receiving bad judgement, then the good judgement we receive loses its value. Judgement worth having needs to be fraught with the possibility of painful failure if it is to matter. And this is why we feel so deeply ambivalent about it, and will often pretend to wish our need for it away. It is really why my question contains emotional heat.

By ‘judgement’ I’m thinking of the social and moral judgements we make of each other in different forms, mainly evaluations of character or action, including the appearance and status, of another person especially around their competence or motivation. These ways of seeing each other pepper our interactions, whether through barely perceptible flinches and gut feels through to more conscious assessments, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, but judging all along. Throughout this book I’ll be exploring how this capacity, while necessary, is often partial, inconsistent, self-serving, skewed and for these reasons unevenly distributed. And that this unreliability applies as much to how we judge ourselves as it does to how we judge each other.

The unreliability of our judgements ensures that the understanding we have of each other is similarly limited, which is why no one will ever truly understand you. Much of this book is an exploration of the limits to the knowledge we can have of each other and the corresponding feeling that most of us, for much of the time, can feel unknown, alone and other.

When I was nearly 10 years old, my family moved from Beirut to Purley in south London. We had left after the civil war in Lebanon started in 1975 and headed to be near my mother’s parents in Croydon. Our first British summer was the famously hot drought of 1976, with temperatures up in the 30s and people needing to ration water. This at least gave us all, my brother, sister and me, some familiar context in what felt an otherwise very unfamiliar country, a country with people who only had one pair of shorts! We all struggled with the adjustment in various ways, my Jordanian father tackling the idiosyncrasies of ‘British middle management’ and having to commute to and from the Middle East for work, my mother after fifteen years abroad finding us schools and somewhere to live. The primary school we went to was just up the road from our house in Purley, so an easy commute at least. But it was a disorientating experience nevertheless, not least because the teachers, seeing that I had a Christian middle name, decided to call me Paul, and I didn’t have the courage to correct them for over a year.

I remember one afternoon getting the results of a maths test. I had got nine out of ten on the test and should have been pleased with that. Unfortunately, the mark I lost was because I had written the correct answer in Arabic. The answer was six, which written in Arabic is indistinguishable from an English seven. Rather than just let it lie, I decided to mention it to the teacher during the lesson. Too seIf-conscious to put my hand up, I can remember walking up to the front of the class and leaning over to whisper to him what had happened. He looked at me with disbelief, and clearly thought I was trying to cheat. I felt embarrassed, and falsely accused during my slow walk back to my chair, my ears reddening with shame. I could hear sniggering. The sense of alienation I had in this new terrain was thus underscored, and I gained a painful insight that is expressed well by the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy:

“We work hard to keep certain versions of ourselves in other people’s minds; and, of course, the less appealing ones out of their minds. And yet everyone we meet invents us, whether we like it or not. Indeed nothing convinces us more of the existence of other people, of just how different they are from us, than what they can make of what we say to them. Our stories often become unrecognizable as they go from mouth to mouth.

Being misrepresented is simply being presented with a version of ourselves, an invention that we cannot agree with.”

My maths test episode stays with me as just one example of being misunderstood in this way. The story being told of me was unrecognizable to me. Yet I still internalized enough of the criticism to judge myself harshly for having made a fuss, and being foolish enough to get out of my chair. Pathetic! This kind of vivid example is thankfully relatively rare. But misjudgements, misunderstandings, misrecognition on a more banal level, are very common. Slight crossings of wires, mismatches in assumptions, desires, social missteps, all create a web of miscomprehension that shadows, and isolates us within, our daily lives. Even when written in lighter ink, these experiences of misjudgement and misconstrual, it seems to me, are a central feature of what it is to be human.

While this is a sobering thought, I’ll be arguing later that the story is not necessarily a bleak one. There is something hopeful that can come from our misapprehensions. In fact the gaps in knowledge between you and me often provide creative spaces in which our protean selves can develop and grow. Too much knowledge would be claustrophobic, predictable and bland. As Leonard Cohen puts it in the chorus of his song ‘Anthem’, a message echoed in the cover of this book,

“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Judging in the digital age

If you want to see how the terrain of judgement has become more complicated in recent years, just look at how much time and effort we invest in expressing ourselves online. And those who think we have become anti-social with an addiction to screens have got it backwards. As my daughter Anna once reminded me when I complained, ‘it is called social media, Dad’.

In presenting ourselves through digital lenses, only seemingly locked away from everyday life, we are instead locked into networks of others who communicate with and assess each other’s presentations of ourselves in a quite intense way. This is not always easy to see. We may focus on connection, relationships and gathering information as we communicate this way but this view tends to require we avert our gaze from how online performances are often set out with the hope we will be assessed well by others, who in turn respond in a similarly deliberate way, creating a hall of mirrors of mutual, hopeful, selfconscious reflections. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you now have a window on to a world of people presenting themselves in their best light, for comparison.

The way self-esteem is fed or starved through this medium can be seen with the rising rates of self-harming and online bullying alongside the everyday flow of selfies, gossip and the growth of tools like Instagram and Snapchat. And, of course, there can be harmful consequences for people who have yet to find out there is no delete button on the internet, who might say and show things they later regret.

Our culture has been so permeated by new forms of communication that we are no longer shocked to hear numbers that would have left us openmouthed in disbelief a decade ago: two billion people on Facebook consume 500 years of video every day; 350,000 tweets are produced every minute and 650 million blogs are written each day. And all of them adorned with metrics that give you some basis for comparison. You can count how many friends a person has, or how many ‘likes’ their post receives, their followers and subscribers, their retweets, Tumblr re-posts and YouTube views. And much as we deny the significance of such simplistic measures of success, it is very likely they have some kind of skewing effects on most people’s behaviour.

When you get out of an Uber you are invited to score the driver by clicking on one of five stars, but you need to remember that they are scoring you too. The first episode of Black Mirror, season 3, by Charlie Brooker takes this mutual scoring into a satirical dystopia in which people whose scores are constantly changing and constantly visible to all, panic as their rating falls below 4.2, which then limits their access to highstatus goods. Those who have fallen catastrophically to under 2 become the underclass. The power of the programme comes in echoing the ubiquity of digitally mediated social judgement that has so quickly become part of contemporary lives.

Take Twitter. Who can honestly say they have no idea how many followers they have? Who won’t feel a little blip of satisfaction to see new followers or re-tweets appearing under that little blue sign dubbed ‘notifications’. And who doesn’t send out a tweet wondering whether it will get acknowledged in some way? Why tweet at all unless you hope to be noticed and acknowledged? Three hundred and fifty thousand tweets per minute adds up to over half a billion attention-seeking messages every day.

We have all become broadcasters and now can reach much larger audiences with a click of a button than would have been possible for anyone outside of the media industries only a few years ago. And this leaves us open to much faster judgements if we get it wrong. The intensity of judgement is refracted brightly through a digital lens and makes it quite clear that those who thought the internet was a place to express yourself privately got it completely wrong. When Emily Thornberry MP sent out a tweet including an image of a house in Rochester swathed in England flags she was immediately judged harshly for the apparent sneer she was directing at a patriotic working-class voter.

This led to her resigning her post as shadow attorney general within days.

I’ll advised comments made can now race around the world in a Twitter storm as happened to Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate, whose career was ended within days of making sexist remarks during a conference in Korea.

Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been (Publicly) Shamed works through many cases of disproportionate punishment meted out to witless Twitterers who have crossed a line. The digital world may have intensified our proneness to judging and being judged in return. But it didn’t create that need, it just feeds ancient appetites. Rather like cheap fast food, so ubiquitously available today, that satisfies ancient evolved cravings for sugar and fat, we now can access mechanisms on a scale never seen before that feed the deep yearning we have for giving and receiving social judgement.

I was caught by a simple question recently, from a man who lives in difficult conditions in Zimbabwe. ‘Why do people in the West ever commit suicide?’ he asked. The question asks how it could be that life could seem unliveable when the profound hardships and deprivations that so many in the world still face have been so abundantly overcome. But we also, despite a culture that encourages us to fill up on luxuries, sense that consumption and material needs met do not ultimately satisfy. This observation also invites us to think about the comparisons we make with others and the standards we are then set by which we might see ourselves as failing. The internal judge of ourselves, based on such comparison, is often the hardest critic we face. In looking at and judging others’ lives, we can value our own by those lights, and this can lead to imagining their judgements of us in return. This in turn can lead to internalizing those verdicts, and often to finding ourselves so wanting as to make life seem worth less. Far from the optimistic assumption that our needs become more optional as they move from the primitive basics of food, clothing, shelter and ascend into the more abstract domain of self-esteem and recognition (as Maslow’s pyramid suggests), the need to feel justified in our lives, however physically comfortable, is just as profound as the need to thrive on a more basic level.

There is something poignant in Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear to all but himself, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the notice of the world will be attracted’. It is poignant because we can picture such hope with no guarantee that it will be well met. Or maybe that we picture it will be met with harsh critique or possibly worse indifference; the vulnerable hoper is exposed callously to the depleted language of being ‘a nobody’ instead of ‘a somebody’, let alone a VIP.

As with economic and other resources, the judgement of others is very unevenly distributed. Some are rich with recognition, applause, goodwill, trust, reputation and others are starved of a good word. This would be bad enough if this uneven spread of good judgement were based on something approaching a fair and rational set of assessments. The courts dispensing ‘blind justice’ claim to be the emblem, if not the reality, of this ideal. But the worst of it is that the judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other, as I will explore in detail in this book.

This unequal distribution is intimately tied up with other kinds of inequality. Recent newspaper articles have talked about how the middle classes create a glass floor for their children. They have resources to ensure no child of theirs falls below a certain level of attainment and expectation in life no matter their lack of intellectual or other merits, and crucially this is because they have opportunities to increase their confidence in the world: their preparedness to expect to be well judged. As the acutely observant sociologist Erving Goffman commented over fifty years ago:

“In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports . . . . Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself during moments at least as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.”

By this account the vast majority of people are stigmatized one way or another. They have ‘spoiled identities’ in Goffman’s language. I don’t imagine this inequality will change any more easily than other entrenched unfairnesses that plague our society, but there may be benefit in exploring the strange texture of social judgement so as to avoid at least some of those pitfalls. In this book I want to explore the mechanisms of social judgement which happen every day so as to better understand the uncomfortable outcomes we seem to take for granted. And one of these uncomfortable outcomes is the feeling of isolation arising from the uneasy sense that people don’t truly understand us.

A tour of this book

When assessing claims it is understandable to ask for the evidence, and this often means scientific evidence. Evidence and argument are critically important in supporting claims, and it is thanks to this scientific principle that we can distinguish between effective medicines and magic, between bridges that will carry the weight of traffic versus those that will not. But these are relatively ‘tame’ problems. The scientific method will not always offer satisfying explanations of more complex phenomena, which are not so tame. By contrast many of our concerns in social life have instead the characteristics of ‘wicked problems’. ‘Wicked problem’ is a term used to describe a problem that does not have right or wrong answers (though hopefully better or worse ones); it is usually so uniquely set in a context that you can’t easily generalize from it; and the attempt to identify the dense array of underlying causes changes dramatically depending on what frame of reference you are using.

Many of the major social concerns of our times, such as inequality, good relationships, satisfying work or general well-being fall into the category of ‘wicked’. If you want to understand why unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (as Tolstoy said in the opening line of Anna Karenina) the sources of evidence and the nature of the argument will be a much wider array than falls within the ambit of experimental science.

And so it is with judgement in my view. Our ambivalent relationship with judgement, our often partial and unreasonable mechanisms for deploying it, and our flawed dreams of escape from that kind of scrutiny certainly can be illuminated by the work of experimental psychology. And I will be drawing on this work throughout the book. But this is also true of the more qualitative insights to be gleaned from philosophy, psychoanalytic traditions, anthropology, sociology, as well as those other deep repositories of human knowledge, popular culture and literature.

To deny this is to resemble the drunk man who leaves a pub one night and goes to the carpark to find his car. On his way, he realizes he has lost his keys. So he goes over to the nearest lamppost to search around for them. A policewoman looking on starts to help him, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching asks whether that’s in fact where he lost them and the drunk answers, ‘No, I lost them over there’, pointing over to an area in the surrounding darkness. The policewoman, puzzled asks him, ‘Then why are you looking for your keys here, if you lost them over there?’, to which the man replies, ‘Ah, because this is where the light is good.’ It is understandable to look for more certainty than can be had when investigating a phenomenon, and this ‘streetlight effect’ is a tendency to rely on what is more measurable than what might be more insightful even if harder to explore rigorously. Wicked problems often require that we peer into the dark.

Experimental psychologists nevertheless can help us see some features of human nature that generalize across human experience, and shed light on this by arranging the world to show up these daily illusions. They ask people to imagine a stone being dropped from a plane and then to guess where it would land. By showing the gap between our guesses (straight down) and the reality (miles ahead, we overlook the fact the plane is moving so fast), they can skilfully illuminate the biases and preoccupations that can fuel our outlook on the world. But in looking for such common features it is easy to overlook the very particular experiences that we as individuals encounter every day. An ultra-social animal trades in judgements because reputations are of the highest importance, but the particular experience of such judgement is highly contextualized and unique to the setting in question. To develop some insight into these it is valuable to look to films and novels and other forms of popular culture which tell particular stories set in a particular context. To understand the choices involved in developing a reputation we might turn to the compelling and specific story of Walter White in the hit TV series Breaking Bad as much as to generalizable experimental data. As the psychologist Dan McAdams puts it, ‘As artists we each fashion a singular, self-affirming life. As scientists, we notice how the life we have fashioned resembles certain other lives; we detect similarities, regularities and trends.’ Emphasizing the general over the unique, psychology tends to lump while literature splits.

In the spirit of a multi-level approach I draw on these diverse sources to build a picture that I hope more faithfully reflects the complex, ‘wicked’ reality, rather than to boil it down merely to what can be determined in the lab. I hope that this diversity of enquiry will also make for a more interesting read and help to justify the judgement you made in picking this book up in the first place.

I start with a tour of the social minefields in which we operate. As we tiptoe our way through convention and expectation, the threat of being judged ill plagues us and exposes us to many forms of social pain. Anxieties about awkwardness, embarrassment and guilt, shame’s fellow travellers, police our behaviour in profound ways, leading us to find ways to cope by hiding; by veiling our speech and our behaviour. People vary in the skill and knowledge they can use to develop good enough technique. Most of us move somewhere between seeming cool or chic on the one hand, and awkward and gauche on the other, micro-managing impressions as best we can along the way.

Zoom out from the micro-analysis of impression management and you start to see how reputations rise and fall over time. This is the subject of the next chapter. Reputations are some of the most valuable assets a social animal can accrue. In particular, the best reputations need to manage an unlikely tradeoff between being seen as well motivated on the one hand, and as competent or skilled on the other: both moral and able, to put it simply. But no one builds a reputation in isolation. It is granted. Whether you are deemed moral or able, both or neither of these of course lies in the eye of the beholder.

Unfortunately, the beholder’s eye is an unreliable one; the subject of Chapter 3. The lessons learned about how we deploy social and moral judgements on each other are sobering. We are laden with implicit biases, moral flinches and yuk reactions, alongside self-serving and hypocritical judgements which are coloured by the group allegiances to which we subscribe. Recent research in social and moral psychology, which I’ll explore in this chapter, reveals the scale of these tendencies. Our judgements of each other are far from a fair-minded and neutral assessment, however much we might persuade ourselves to see them in that light.

. . .



Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood

by Ziyad Marar

get it at Amazon.com