No more snap judgements: learn to rethink


I recently read a research article published in 2011[i]. It talked about how prejudice comes from a deep psychological need to categorize our environment in order to remove uncertainty. Not just about situations and events but also about the people we meet.

This need likely comes from a precondition to naturally sort our surroundings called apophenia. Have you ever noticed yourself sorting people when you meet them? We may note their gender, culture, language, hair and eye color, age, etc. Our brain is noting and categorizing the information without us even realizing it. As humans, we look to find patterns and meaning as we process information. In new situations, it can be uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking when we are unable to see the pattern or meaning. The more uncomfortable we are, the more quickly we want to make firm decisions about a person, situation, or event. The research also said those of us who are most uncomfortable make up our minds quickly and then stick to it. No matter how much information is given that might challenge our decision. Along with categorizing, we assign positive and negative properties to these categories. For example, believing everyone with a substance use disorder goes back to them using substances. This is because we know one or two people who used substances and therefore assign that property to all people in that category. We then make quick judgments about that person based on what we already believe about people with substance use disorders.

This was all very educational but now what do we do about it? To avoid apophenia and its tendency to skew our opinion, we can do several things[ii]:

  1. Do your own research before forming judgments. Stay away from “sloppy thinking and intellectual laziness” by being a skeptic and forming our own opinions about each individual we meet, rather than lumping everyone together.
  2. Learn to recognize our own biases and be willing to question them. Snap judgments and categorizations lead to false assumptions, prejudices, stigmas, and stereotypes.
  3. Analyze our assumptions and test our guesses. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Our lives are better through our experiences and interactions. The more honest they are, the more enriching they are. As we prepare for the New Year, there is no better time to challenge our old beliefs.



About the Author

Author Joan Hartman
Title Vice President of Strategy and Public Policy

Joan Hartman has worked in the behavioral health field since 1984. She has experience in all aspects of behavioral health including community-based and acute psychiatric, crisis intervention along with all levels of substance abuse services. She has served on the board of the Illinois Association of Behavioral Health since 2007. She currently serves as Vice President of Strategy and Public Policy for Chestnut Health Systems. Joan works to create partnerships with local, regional, and national collaborators. She holds a master’s of education degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Louisville and a bachelor’s degree in Alcohol and Drug Studies from the University of South Dakota. Joan has been in active recovery from substance use disorders since 1983. She has been married since 1989 and has three children and one adorable grandchild. She is active in her church and relies on her spiritual sisters for ongoing support and accountability.