By Caroline Fleck
Judgments - Mental Shortcuts, or Distortions in Reality?Uploaded: Jan 26, 2015
He's so smart; I'm chubby; she's ugly; he's bad for you; they're perfect together ? what do all of these statements have in common? They're judgments; they reflect matters of opinion, not indisputable facts.
That may not seem too terribly fascinating, or insightful, but bear with me. Because what is phenomenal, in my opinion, is the extent to which we allow our judgments to affect our decisions, mood, and functioning.
The past 50 years alone have produced hundreds of studies showing that our perspectives and the decisions we make based on those perspectives are significantly and systematically biased. In 2002 psychologist Daniel Kahneman actually won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area. He and his colleagues ultimately concluded that people rely on mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, to help them make decisions and process information more quickly. The problem is that while generally useful, judgments have the capacity to distort reality in consistent ways, particularly when they become habitual, or go unnoticed.
The utility of judgments is perhaps obvious: you could simply say "Jim's a bad guy," or you could waste time trying to describe what you mean by "bad." You could perhaps enumerate all of the behaviors Jim has engaged in that have offended you, been unlawful, or resulted in harm to others. This admittedly seems like a tremendous waste of time. And I'm here to argue that it's actually time well spent.
In recent years, the field of psychology has been revolutionized by therapeutic approaches that emphasize "non-judgment." These treatments provide skills training in how to increase our awareness of judgments and become more objective in our interpretations of people, situations, and experiences.
And, again, the research on the effectiveness of these interventions is impressive. Cognitive-behavioral therapies ? which have been shown through rigorous research trials to be effective in treating a range of conditions including depression and anxiety ? focus extensively on increasing one's awareness of their judgments and cognitive distortions.
Borderline personality disorder, a condition once considered "untreatable" by mental health professionals, can now effectively be managed with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) (Linehan, 1993). DBT is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is based in large part on helping clients notice and challenge their judgments.
Even physiological indicators of medical conditions including HIV (Robinson,
Mathews, & Witek-Janusek, 2003), psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998), and cancer (Carlson, Speca, Faris, & Patel, 2007; Witek-Janusek et al., 2008), have been shown to improve significantly in individuals who received Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) ? an 8 week meditation class in which participants learn how to, you guessed it, cultivate non-judgment.
So how do we do this? What strategies do these approaches use to affect change?
In truth they don't all go about it the same way, though they seem to all be pretty effective at helping folks decrease judgments. The cognitive behavioral interventions typically involve some psycho-education around common cognitive distortions in which people often engage. Biases like the "hindsight bias" (seeing mistakes in the past as avoidable based on information you've since acquired) and "polarized thinking" (categorizing things into extremes, while failing to consider the complexity that is inherent in most situations) are explained and reviewed. The therapist then points out when you are engaging in cognitive distortions during your sessions, helps you identify the situations that seem to increase your cognitive distortions (such as when you are stressed about work, in a fight with a loved one, or not sleeping well), and then teaches you how to reframe your thoughts in more objective terms.
The obvious caveat to the cognitive-behavioral approaches is that they require the support of a therapist. If you are trying to tackle this on your own, I would encourage you to have a loved one, someone you trust and are able to take feedback from, point out your judgments as they occur. I've also had clients use golf tickers to track their judgments throughout the day as a means of increasing awareness.
The mindfulness approaches are perhaps more readily accessible. As I've discussed in previous posts, the JKZ app for smartphones more or less walks you through an MBSR course and is narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a renowned expert in the practice of cultivating non-judgment. There are countless smartphone applications that can facilitate a home mindfulness practice, as well as numerous places in the Bay Area that offer classes and opportunities to practice mindfulness. I would also highly recommend the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh to anyone interested in learning more about the power of nonjudgmental awareness and strategies for developing it.
The takeaway is that you do not have to be a Jedi master, Zen monk, or psychologist to get control of your judgments. However, you do have to be willing to look honestly at your thoughts. You have to accept that your thoughts are not facts, and you must commit to the practice of becoming more descriptive, and less opinionated, in your interpretations. Ultimately, you must teach your mind to take the long road when it comes to interpreting information if you hope to arrive at a place that is balanced and unbiased.