Where Do Your Opinions Come From? Understanding the Judgemental Brain

It's natural to make quick judgements about others and form opinions based on our values and expectations. These judgements are designed to keep us safe, but can often be misleading and lead to you getting hurt. In this post you'll learn about why and how your brain forms judgements, which will help you be more savvy about the opinions you form in the future.

“When you make a statement about someone, it says nothing about them and everything about you.”

Huh? How so?

When you observe what someone does or says, it triggers a response in you according to your experiences, values and expectations (your implicit memories or operating systems).

Any statement you make about someone else’s behavior simply reflects these expectations and defines the difference between their actions and your expectations.

It says nothing about their values . . . but everything about yours.

Any opinion about them is a projection of what is going on in your own mind and says nothing about them at all. Instead, it simply defines how you see and compare them to your own fantasies. The same applies when someone says something about you: their comments merely reflect their own expectations and thinking.

The following may help you to avoid being judgemental and not to be upset by what someone says about you, and that includes the people closest to you.

Why your brain is so quick to form judgements

When researchers showed people photographs of faces and provided a few details about their owners, the respondents determined within sixty seconds if they liked or disliked the individuals behind the faces.

They decided if they were innocent or guilty of a crime, if they thought they were trustworthy and made judgments about their personality that were nothing short of psychic, given the few details with which they had been provided.

This shows we form an opinion about a person within less than a minute after first meeting them. Obviously we don’t much care if it’s correct or about details. Scary! How can we possibly make a judgment on someone based on such limited information? Here comes a much scarier thought (apart from having to face a jury that relies on a sixty-second assessment).

Why we pay little attention to details

While our brain has achieved higher levels of functioning this has come at a price: quantity over quality. While we’re able to take in a high amount of information, most of it is processed on a superficial level only.

The reason for this comes back to the brain’s primary goal: keeping us safe and ensuring our survival. Being able to complete ever more complex tasks has resulted in a greater capacity to take in and process new incoming information, but also to put it in different contexts and use it in novel ways.

For example, we’re now able to invent things to make our lives easier and can extract more information. This has resulted in a greater number and variety of neural networks, and the increased connectivity between networks has created highly complex activation sequences, which researchers are now trying to untangle and trace back to their origins.

The price for this higher processing power is the loss of attention to detail. In essence, we rely on less information to make more inferences. We call it pigeonholing and the advantage is that we don’t have to spend a lot of time to make up our mind about a person.

Forming snap judgements is your brains way of keeping you safe

As far as the brain is concerned, that makes a lot of sense, since on this level of information processing it’s not interested in justice or fairness. So what if I make a wrong decision? To which the brain would argue: Would you rather be safe or fair? Ouch! Incidentally, this consolidation of information happens on an almost daily basis.

Think of your school years as an example. For most people school was a mixed experience, with both good and bad memories. Yet when asked, most people rate it either positive or negative, ignoring the details.

How come? Because unless there is a very specific reason to dig deeper into our memory bank, that’s good enough and the overriding impression will do.

We also do it with people. We rate them according to our opinion about them, as friends, acquaintances or people we don’t want to know. Do these people have no redeeming qualities?

Conversely, do our friends have no faults? We could hardly say that, and yet for us they are good people because we often ignore their negative (or what others may view as such) traits and base our relationship with them on rather selective criteria.  These, of course, also form the basis for expectations and disappointments.

When we pigeonhole, the (old, primitive) brain makes the decision for us and errs on the side of caution. The notion of fairness and justice originates in quite a different, and much more recent, part of the brain as the result of a subsequent ‘higher function’ analysis and is not essential for survival. In fact, it can result in the opposite.

The judgements you make about others say more about you

How many times have you felt disappointed by a foe, and how often by a friend? Should have been more careful, the old brain would say. That’s the reason the brain makes what we may call rash decisions, rather than well-considered judgments.

The result of this is: when we make a judgment about someone else, we really disclose more about ourselves than the person we’re judging.

Forming opinions from expectations

Scary as it may be, we can hardly escape that fact. Even when we know a person, we only know the picture we’ve constructed in our own mind about them, based on how they behave, compared with other experiences in our lives and cross-checked against their actions.

The expectations we form of others are shaped by the opinions we hold. When they aren’t met, and we feel disappointed, we blame them, whether they are classified as friend or foe. But for what? For not conforming to our expectations?

While we may accept or expect nonconformity from our enemies when this comes from our friends we react with disappointment.

Remember your boundaries before you speak

When we attach a label to someone after knowing them for a period of time, we reveal our own life experiences and the expectations they have fostered in us. Positive or negative, we give away what is or isn’t important to us.

Remembering where our own boundaries stop can remind us that what we say about others gives away much about ourselves rather than the person to whom our comments are directed. This should help us to be more mindful when we speak.

George Dieter is the author of I-Power, The Freedom to Be Me, a book that will help you understand Boundary Theory and how this can help you live with more confidence and less stress.