Who are you calling judgy?
We’ve never had so many opinions about so many things. As research reveals being judgemental could be a sign of deeper negativity, let’s unravel the psychology of cynicism
Opinions, verdicts, critiques – we unravel the psychology of cynicism
TThere’s a certain arch of an eyebrow that has the power to convey a thousand words. Get caught in the act and you might be able to pass it off as a facial twitch, but meet the eye of the person it was intended for and it will render words redundant. If judgement has a face, then this is it.
Right now, that brow is on track to develop a serious case of RSI. We’re at it all day long, forming opinions and passing judgement on just about everything and everyone, from their choice of partner and taste in clothes to their political beliefs. When you’re scrolling through a schoolfriend’s wedding pics (wait, she married
him?); when you nearly click reply all on an email correcting someone’s grammar (I think you’ll find it’s ‘their’); when the person in front of you at the checkout is stocking up on all the cheese (er, ever heard of macros?). If 2018 had a hobby, being judgemental would be it. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that, despite the instant deliciousness of a smirk, it’s not doing anyone much good.
Like most of our basic instincts, evolution has had a hand in priming us for finding fault, before society and technology then ramped up the gears. In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers scanned the brains of participants as they were shown a series of faces for about 30 milliseconds each. They found that certain areas of the amygdala – responsible for the processing of emotions such as fear – were activated based on perception of the trustworthiness of the faces. This ancient brain circuitry reveals just how natural it is for us humans to critique; to assess the safety of a situation as primitive beings.
Though safety may not be the primary driver behind that sideeye when you clock someone non-ironically rocking socks and sandals, the response is still judging. The study suggests that we form a first impression of someone before we’ve even fully registered what they look like. Then, when we get a proper look at their face, we make sweeping judgements about who they are and how they’re likely to behave. FYI, faces with high eyebrows and prominent cheekbones are considered more trustworthy than the opposite. Perhaps that explains why you were a fan of Obama but feel suspicious of his successor. (But probs not…)
If we were born with the instinct, digital advancements and the snowballing of social media have only served to take judging others from dial-up to fibre-optic. A website sparked by the desire to network, Facebook soon became a portal through which to assess the photos of friends. Instagram has been built upon likes (giving the act of withholding a like its own critical meaning) and Twitter feeds are awash with political vitriol and shaming trolls wherever you look. “We now have this heightened ability to judge the people around us,” says author Gabrielle Bernstein, who has quite literally written the book on the subject (more on that later). “Increased access to one another has turned us all into public figures. We’ve all got voices and we’re determined and encouraged to use them. It’s up to the individual whether they do so in a judgemental way or choose to be kind,” she adds.
Back in 2016, one case proved how devastating the consequences can be when an eyebrow-raise or grimace is taken global. A 29-year-old Playboy model, Dani Mathers, took her reaction to a fellow woman’s unclothed body in an LA gym changing room to the next level by capturing a candid photo and posting it on Snapchat. Her decision to public-shame was attacked worldwide (oh, what a tangled web of judgement we weave), with many coming to the defence of her victim – aged 70 at the time – who had believed she was dressing in privacy, and led to Dani being landed with a judgement of her own in the form of a legal trial and community service order.
Manage your mean girl
Catty comments and furtive eye rolls signify your own discontent – and could actively be making you more unhappy. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology asked participants to rank each other based on positive and negative traits. The researchers found the more positively someone described another person, the more likely they were to be happy, kind-hearted and emotionally stable themselves. Those who judged harshly were more likely to be narcissistic, antisocial and unstable.
Psychologist Perpetua Neo agrees that being judgemental is doing you no favours and its impetus is often misplaced. “Who you judge is all part of deciding how well you’re doing, or perceive yourself to be doing, compared with someone else,” she says. “Putting others down is a form of validation; it makes you feel that your own belief system is correct.” It’s a paradox: you judge to feel better about yourself, but then it only makes you feel worse.
But just how much worse depends on what you’re judging. “It comes down to social comparison theory by Leon Festinger,” Neo adds. “Sometimes you compare downwards with someone worse off to feel better about yourself.”
It’s why you judge the girl who goes for the 6kg kettlebell when you’re swinging 20kg. “That’s downward social comparison. The inevitable shame and guilt triggers cortisol in the response centre of your brain.” You can also engage in upward social comparison: think judging the body of someone you admire in a negative way (‘I wouldn’t want her abs, they’re so obvious…’). “This is harmful as it triggers a sense of inadequacy and poor self-worth.”
Going cold jerky
When Bernstein realised how habitually judgemental she had become, she tried to unlearn that behaviour. “I nearly sabotaged my life judging people. I lost friends, I lost relationships,” she admits. So she sought a way to quit. The resulting book, Judgement Detox, has a six-step plan to break the habit. It involves working out what’s really bothering you, repeating positive mantras and keeping a journal.
If the idea of putting yourself on a plan to stop you talking shit about your friend’s ex’s new squeeze feels a bit Oprah, you’d be right. But if any behaviour – be it drinking too much, flaking on your mates or, yes, passing comment on those around you – doesn’t make you actively feel better about life, surely it’s time to phase it out. Neo suggests a social media detox to break the cycle but notes that it won’t cure you forever. Like Bernstein, she agrees the only way to do that is to get to the root cause of why you feel the need to comment on other people. So if the gym is where you’re your most judgemental self, perhaps you’re not happy with your current regime. If you’re hating on others for the jobs they have, are you happy in yours?
If all else fails, your grandma’s advice still holds true. If you can’t say anything nice… amen!
“HEY KETTLE, POT’S NEW?”
DON’T BUBBLE OVER