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

Women's Health Australia - - NEWS - By Kate Leaver

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.

Judge­ment day

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

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