THE BLOG
12/26/2012 04:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2013

Why Judging by Appearance Can Be Harmful

It's interesting how understanding something or someone gives us greater latitude to resolve a problem, as opposed to perpetuating it. Many times, when we see or hear someone saying or doing something unusual, our first reaction is to make judgments about something we really don't understand. If what we observe doesn't conform to what we learned from past experiences, we promptly dismiss it.

Even if we may disagree with a person's point of view or don't understand one's behavior, we may pre-judge the rationality of their view or behavior without understanding that there may be legitimate reasons why a person believes or behaves the way they do. Whether these reasons are good or not is a matter of interpretation. The fact is, with every observable act, there's always a genealogy of events that have pre-conditioned any moment that confronts us.

Instead of making hasty and inconclusive judgments about the nature of our experience, wouldn't it benefit us to suspend judgments until we have measured and analyzed the underlying nature of the phenomena before us? When we don't poise ourselves to comprehend any situation, belief, or individual behavior, we contribute to how that person, belief, or situation will be misconstrued. This habit of prematurely rejecting something new or different because we're not accustomed to it can result in someone's behavior or belief being stigmatized, ridiculed, and unaccepted.

Our impulsive rejection of phenomena that doesn't conform to our own common sense can ultimately culminate in many injustices, which a brief survey of history will confirm. When Galileo supported the Copernican view that the earth is in motion and revolves around the sun, the scientific and clerical establishment at the time went into a frenzy. It was accepted scientific canon at the time that the earth was motionless and stood at the center of the universe. The adjudicators of knowledge of the day went so far as to sentence Galileo to house arrest for the remainder of his life and forced him to withdraw his position without even considering that they could have been wrong. Eventually, when the church recognized that new evidence warranted a new perspective, the church was forced to revise their position.

As people, part of our nature always wants to know the reason why something happens. As Aristotle once said, "All men by nature desire to know." This instinct to know will always make us offer our own estimate to any situation without considering all of the factors involved. The desire to know that we're right is greater than the desire to know what is right. The problem with viewing life based on what we think we know is that we think our immediate judgment about a matter is the definitive claim on the subject. Our ego will gladly accommodate us not accepting new ways of thinking, since it threatens the identity it has attached to its old form of thought.

It's hard to understand the nature of other people or the natural world, if all we really care to know is any and everything that comes out of our own mind. This attitude constrains our ability to find out more about any issue. We assume that just because we call something for what it is or what we think it is, that there isn't a composite of underlying and interactive factors responsible for our observations. Even if one suspects that they have thoroughly examined the relevant factors of any issue, one still has to reserve the possibility that more can still be learned as we move forward. The realm of truth is never fixed, and neither should the way our minds maintain its convictions.

The reason a life of learning is of paramount value is that it allows one to form reasons for what we observe beyond our obvious assumptions. One's mind should never resort to the first explanation that it develops, especially if that explanation is based on a whimsical tirade. Our mind should avoid the impulse of determining the causes of events until a wide range of evidence is gathered and assessed from many different sources and traditions.

Psychologists have long discovered that humans possess the natural tendency of assigning blame to other people for perceived questionable behavior without regarding other "situational factors" that might be responsible for their behavior (Jones & Harris, 1967). For instance, if we witness a person arriving late to work or school, our first instinct would be to think that they don't care about their work, not that they have to drop their child off at school before they go to work or that they're experiencing delays in the subway. The examples are endless. The point is that there's always more to any given situation than we care to recognize.

Every person and moment of experience comes with its own history. This history is usually formed by a compilation of factors. When we understand the unique components of that history, we're more equipped to adequately respond to our experience. With this perspective in mind, we'll avoid asserting false conclusions about a person's character and hopefully form a common basis of understanding, which can help humanity eliminate some of the undue inner strife we inflict upon each other.

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