Monday, April 01, 2013

On judging others

Say, we meet someone for the first time. How do we judge him or her then? We put them in one of the boxes that we have ready for it in our mind: the so-called prejudices or – with a less negative word – preconceptions. Where do these preconceptions come from? We learned them when we grew up, so from our parents, from other people around us and from the way such people are generally judged in the society we live in. Thus we judge people from another country or our neighbours, men or women, white, black or yellow people, and so on. The less we know about the stranger we judge the more we tend to apply our boxes for our judgments. Some people see through this mechanism and try to see the real person. Others never get the idea or never are able to see that such judgments are based on preconceptions.
Most people have several characteristics: they are both Frenchman and woman and black and … So they can be put in different boxes at the same time. Then we get a complicated image of the stranger, but it is still preconceived. What is interesting here is that the less interaction we had with the stranger before, the more the ratings of other people are based on our self-ratings of the traits judged (see for instance John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The unbearable automaticity of being”: ). This substantiates the idea that we have boxes in our head in which we put persons we don’t know.
Sometimes the contacts with other persons are flimsy and superficial. We see them once and then never more. But it can also happen that the contact continues and even grows into a relation: the stranger becomes, for instance, our colleague, friend, partner, or it is a shopkeeper we see once or twice a week and with whom we always have a chat. Gradually our knowledge of what was once a stranger is deepened and we become more or less acquainted with him of her. Then we tend to put the sometime stranger less and less in our preconceived boxes and see him or her as a single person. Or so it is for most people. How this develops is mainly an individual process. For some people this process goes faster, for others slower. Some people keep always employing the preconceived categories for judging others in a certain degree, for other people the preconceptions fade completely away. Be this as it may, I always say: When I have seen someone three times, I forget how he or she looks like and I see only the person. And that’s also how we hope that the sometime stranger will go to think about us, for, as Montaigne said: “I very much desire that we may be judged every man by himself, and would not be drawn into the consequence of common examples.” (Essays, Book I, Chapter XXXVI, “Of Cato the Younger”)

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