We are trained to think in absolutes. To make judgments, reach conclusions and decide quickly is good. By contrast, prevarication, uncertainty, vagueness or indecision is seen as bad. One of our strongest social stereotypes is the decisive leader – a gung-ho, go-getting hero who makes things happen – who makes up his or her mind and then sticks to it. We associate this with resolution and determination.
We unwittingly buy into this and by implication those who display qualities that don’t fit (doubt and uncertainty are at the top of the list), tend to be seen as lesser beings. Taking time to think is seen as indecision, and flexibility as hesitation. This is especially true in the workplace.
Jumping to conclusions
While the ability to make decisions when it is called for is useful, we often overlook how we unconsciously admire this behaviour and frequently over-use it. Coupled to the mind’s natural propensity for making either-or distinctions this can severely limit us. Here I want to consider two of these.
The first is that our need to make a decision prevents us from being able to stand back and consider the wider range of possibilities. There is a view that says there are always more choices than false choice we so often limit ourselves to. Heraclitus said “Lovers of wisdom must open their minds to many things”; making premature judgements closes the mind and shuts out possibilities. It provides certainty but in so doing reduces our ability to think matters through, to see the nuances and shades of grey that are so often laced with opportunity.
The second, and in my view by far the most limiting, is our love of judgments in everyday thought. When we make a judgment about someone (“John is lazy”; “Mary is always late”), we have effectively labelled them and made a decision about future behaviour based on a snap evaluation (this applies to things as well, as in “public transport is unreliable’” or, “four-leafed clover doesn’t exist”). One of the problems here, according to linguist S.I. Hayakawa, is that it induces what he calls temporary blindness; when we make an absolute statement we must make all later statements consistent with that judgment.
When I decide that “John is lazy” or that “Ann is difficult” I prevent myself from seeing further than my judgement. I must filter my observations to fit my belief and so I miss or edit out the range of qualities, strengths and abilities that make John and Ann unique and well-rounded individuals. I also limit the possibilities for my future dealings with them; beware of working with lazy or difficult people!
Shortcut to stereotypes
Of course we all make judgements, and there is something wonderfully comforting about reducing someone a single dimension, dismissing them with a throwaway line like “He enjoys conflict” or “She wastes money.” And we don’t limit ourselves to individuals either, how about for example, “Men can’t be trusted” or “Women are irrational”? Today’s hasty judgements are tomorrow’s stereotypes.
Though there may be temporary comfort in certainty, the false certainty of hasty judgements reduces our ability to see a wider range of possibilities and so limits our courses of action. It condemns us to treat others according to the labels we put on them and prevents us from thinking further.
Hayakawa, S.I. Hayakawa, A.R., (1990), Language in Thought and Action, 5th Ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego.
Von Oech, R., (2001), Expect the Unexpected (or you won’t find it), The Free Press, New York.