Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dear Inner Judge: You're fired

Can we stop judging one another? Probably not; it seems to be fairly ingrained in our mental processes to judge other people. I believe I've witnessed other people who are not judgmental but it's certainly something I struggle with. Conflict is not only fueled by judgmental attitudes, it is further exacerbated by faulty, unfair judgment.

If my partner wants more affection than I'm giving her, she is 'needy and dependent.' But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is 'aloof and insensitive.'
 (Rosenberg, p. 16)
Setting aside our Inner Judge is, for most of us, a task that feels artificial, yet can help enormously in our conflict de-escalation. It removes us from the charge of hypocrisy or oppressor and slowly helps us build authentic relationships based on unconditional respect for the other's humanity.

Psychologists describe the fundamental negative attribution error, made by many of us when we contextualize and thus excuse our own actions or the actions of those we intend to defend; circumstances left me with no option except this behavior. He shot the man because he was afraid for his own safety. They rioted because they want justice.

However, when another engages in the same behavior we are more likely to attribute that negative behavior to the very nature of that person. He is white--just his nature. She is black--that behavior comes naturally to her. He is just a nasty guy; she is just an inconsiderate woman. The misattributions can be group-based or individually dispositionally oriented, but the effect is the same. I screw up and it's not my fault; you mess up and it's due to your flawed nature. It is not merely a heuristic --shortcut-- process; it makes us happier, says research findings.

This does not mean we use no judgment; we should be quite certain of our principles. But they should relate to behavior, not to the essence of another's humanity--love the sinner, hate the sin.

Dunbar, et alia (2014), found in their study that one way to mitigate this faulty but tempting logic is to train on a computer game named MacBeth. Education about this is great, but actual training creates those neural pathways that can change our options when we are faced with decisions we used to make almost without thinking about them. Training ourselves to recognize and reject the attribution error and other flawed thinking can professionalize our response to conflict to some degree.

Most of us need some of this training, whether via a computer game, or intentional reflection and education, or through group exercise. If we could fix this we might have a happier family, a more just and deliberative workplace, cops that didn't murder unarmed people, and even war. I'd say it's worth some effort.


Dunbar, Norah E., et al. "Implicit and explicit training in the mitigation of cognitive bias through the use of a serious game." Computers In Human Behavior 37, (August 2014): 307-318. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 4, 2014).

Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (2nd ed.). Encinitas CA: PuddleDancer Press.

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