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December 2021

January 2022

The problem with judgement: it leads to bias

I wrote previously about not judging others. But why is judgment problematic?

It isn't always. Judgment is a useful tool in many circumstances. But it really only works when you have a clearly defined perspective from which you are assessing the judgments. A judgment is always from one perspective, and as such, it is inherently at odds with at least one other perspective.

In my previous example of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, a judgment that the asteroid was bad is from the standpoint of the dinosaurs and the status quo of the earth's ecosystem at that time. A judgment that the asteroid was good is from the human perspective and everything that was enabled by changing the environment and clearing space in the ecosystem.

Judging any emotion or event is similarly problematic. A "good" judgment encourages maximizing. A "bad" judgment encourages minimization or elimination. 

This pitfall can happen in scientific experiments. An experiment or study always starts with a hypothesis. If the researcher isn't careful, they could choose paths and data that support their hypothesis and exclude those that don't. The desire to be right can lead to a false conclusion that doesn't reflect how things are in the world. A truly great scientist is completely open to any outcome from their research, including the fact that their original hypothesis was flawed.

It's easy, and even quite common, to label certain emotions as good or bad. Grief, guilt, shame, embarrassment are painful to experience, so they must be "bad". Joy and awe are pleasant, ergo "good". However, evolution gave us those "bad" emotions for a reason. They are social emotions; they are a very effective mechanism for connecting humans and ensuring that individuals take into account the needs and feelings of others. They work to keep the tribe together. In one sense, they are no different than physical pain. They convey important information about how you and your body relate to the rest of the world. They encourage you to change your behavior to maximize your chance of survival and reproduction.

I know this is a very subtle distinction, but it is an essential one to make in order to see things as they are in the world without bias.