Suspending Judgment

June 3rd, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain

Whenever I write about certain topics, especially those that seem contrary to mainstream conditioning, some people voice very strong opinions. They communicate their thoughts with a high degree of certainty, as if adopting the posture of an expert.

However, upon further inspection it becomes readily apparent that most of these people have little or no direct experience upon which to base their opinions. Their knowledge of such subjects can hardly be classified as knowledge at all, since it’s derived largely from non-primary sources like media conditioning, third-party rumors, and supposition.

Erroneous Knowledge

Of course the problem with acquiring “knowledge” in such an indirect manner is that it’s often riddled with errors. People claim certainty about things that “just ain’t so.”

For example, when I wrote some blog posts about polyamory, much of the feedback I received was nonsensical, whether it was supportive or critical. Out of sheer ignorance, some people would start with a false assumption such as polyamory = polygamy (polygamy is illegal in the USA) and then base their opinions on that assumption. Other assumptions were not quite so ludicrous, but they were just as inaccurate.

People made such errors in judgment because they have no relevant experience upon which to base an informed opinion. So they filled in their lack of knowledge with guesses, and many of those guesses turned out to be completely erroneous. From their perspective their opinions seemed to make sense, but to any reasonable person with experience in those areas, such opinions seemed utterly naive at best and sometimes borderline insane.

Such problems aren’t limited to polyamory of course. They can come up with any topic, but they tend to happen more frequently in areas where people lack direct experience. Other topics which generated a lot of ignorant feedback based on false assumptions include polyphasic sleep, raw food diets, divorce, and even self-employment.

The Smoothing Function

One reason this problem occurs is that our brains have a tendency to apply a “smoothing function” when we lack information about certain subjects. Our minds are always searching for new levels of certainty and patterns of predictability, so when we lack direct experience in a certain area, our brain does the best it can to pull in connections from seemingly related areas.

Unfortunately sometimes those related areas just aren’t related enough, so the connections that are formed introduce a great deal of error, and this corrupts any conclusions we might draw based on those connections.

Think of it like an image or a video that’s overly compressed to the point where you can’t even make out any distinct elements. It’s just a blur of colors. That missing data is important. If the compression is turned up too high, the images don’t convey accurate and useful information.

For example, when I wrote about polyphasic sleep, the topic was outside of most people’s direct experience. Nevertheless, that fact didn’t prevent such people from voicing strong opinions about it. But since they hadn’t experienced polyphasic sleep and knew virtually nothing about it, their opinions were based on the closest mental connections they could form. So people would share opinions with false suppositions like polyphasic sleep = long-term sleep deprivation.

Similarly when I wrote about the raw food diet, many people who hadn’t read so much as a single book about raw foods would share ignorant (yet often strongly worded) opinions based on silly assumptions like raw foods = eating only salads all day.

And then there were false associations like polyamory = promiscuity, domination and submission = abuse, and divorce = conflict.

Some false associations are of a more personal nature, the result of overgeneralization. These include beliefs such as, “I can’t make money online,” or “If I get divorced, it will screw up my kids,” or “If I lose my job, I won’t be able to cope.”

Suspending Judgment

False beliefs and associations are growth killers. When your mind is cluttered with false information, and you base your beliefs on such falsehoods, you can’t move forward in those particular areas. Your progress remains stunted until you clean up the mental mess.

Now the obvious solution here is to suspend judgment when your knowledge in a particular area is lacking. You can actually do this consciously. Your brain may still apply its smoothing function at inappropriate times, but with sufficient self-awareness, you can discipline yourself to mentally override those biases.

The first step is awareness. You must become aware of the areas where you’re likely to harbor false beliefs.

When you catch yourself voicing a strong opinion on some subject, pause for a moment and check in with yourself. What specific knowledge are you basing your opinion on? Is this knowledge based on a wide range of direct experience? Are you an expert on this topic? How do you know what you claim to know?

Do you catch yourself arguing with someone who has more direct experience than you? Are you voicing an opinion just to be opinionated, or are you sharing information of value?

Is your ego getting too involved? Are you wrapping your ideas into your identity, such that when your ideas are criticized, you feel a need to personally defend yourself.

What comes up if you ask yourself, What else might be true?

Based on your self-diagnostic, you may come to realize that your opinion, even though it may be strongly held, has little or no basis in fact.

At this time you can choose to take a step back, release your attachment to your opinion, and allow your mind to unclench and open itself to new ideas. After all, your opinions are not even yours to claim. They are just perspectives. There’s no need to take ownership of any perspective and wrap it into your identity.

You Are Perspective-Independent

It can be tremendously helpful at times to adopt a particular perspective and make the best case you can for it. Then sit back and observe how other people react to it. Allow their feedback to poke holes in your arguments if possible. Use the strength of that initial perspective to draw out other potential perspectives, and explore them as well. But don’t get your ego so wrapped up in your perspective that you close your mind to new ideas.

I do this quite often when I write new articles. Before I begin writing, I adopt a certain perspective that I want to explore in more depth. Then I write some observations based on how reality appears through that lens. After I post the article, I step back and observe the feedback. I see what other lenses people suggest. I see what new pros and cons they identify. In the follow-up discussions, I may push harder to make a case for the original lens, but sometimes I’ll switch sides and offer up other perspectives, so we can explore those as well.

I realize this can confuse people at times because we’re so conditioned to wrap perspectives/lenses into our identities, but I find that more growth opportunities are possible with an open mind. Open-mindedness, however, makes for very dull writing and cannot stimulate much growth. A truly open mind can only receive; it has nothing to give. However, when the mind fixates for a while on a specific perspective, it can express many interesting insights.

If you assume that my blog posts represent my personal opinions on all subjects I write about, you’ll have a completely inaccurate image of me, and you’ll probably be confused in the end because many of my articles share perspectives that appear to be in conflict with each other. That’s because the perspectives I share aren’t mine per se. They’re perspectives that I temporarily adopt to stimulate people to grow. It doesn’t matter whether people agree or disagree with the perspectives that are shared. They derive new growth lessons through the process of thinking about and discussing what’s true for them.

For example, when I write a very opinionated article like 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job, it stimulates a tremendous amount of thought and discussion. For some people, the ideas in the article help motivate them to start their own businesses. I’m aware of dozens of new businesses that have been spawned as a direct result of people reading that article. But some people react in just the opposite way. That article makes them think more deeply about their role as an employee and warns of traps to avoid, so they’re able to make more conscious choices if they choose to follow the path of long-term employment. Either way, that article helps stimulate growth precisely because it appears so strongly opinionated, and therefore people are inclined to think about and react to the ideas being shared.

So the irony here is that it can be a very powerful growth experience to adopt a specific perspective and explore it deeply, but you don’t want to get so attached to any particular perspective that you miss out on powerful growth opportunities. You want to use strong perspectives as a tool for stimulating growth as opposed to a method of blocking growth.

Blocking

Quite often people succumb to false beliefs and erroneous judgments in order to block themselves from facing their fears.

For example, if people can make harsh judgments about divorce, even if such judgments are based on false or inaccurate information, it allows them to rule out the possibility of divorce. Consequently, they may remain stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. Staying stuck enables them to block themselves from facing fears such as: If we break up, will I be able to cope? Will I be able to support myself financially? How will my friends and family react? Will a divorce screw up the kids? Am I good enough to attract a new partner? Can I handle seeing my partner withs someone else? What if s/he finds someone who’s a better match than me, and I’m still alone?

Facing such challenges consciously can be too much for some people, so in the short run, it may seem easier to block the whole thing by clinging to a false belief like marriage is permanent.

A telltale sign of such blocking is closed-mindedness and the unwillingness to consider contradictory information. Especially common is the unwillingness to embrace learning through direct experience.

When people are in blocking mode, they’ll often propose and defend the most ridiculous arguments that make more experienced people cringe.

I see this sort of blocking happen quite often in relationship related discussions in our forums. When people are desperately clinging to an unfulfilling relationship situation, out of fear they may not be able to find anything better, they’ll frequently attack any perspectives that would potentially present them with major growth opportunities. Their unwillingness to face their fears prevents them from seriously considering new perspectives.

The upside is that blocking is often a prelude to a breakthrough. People who are in a blocking phase aren’t necessarily stuck long-term. Usually they’re working through their fears. The whole reason they dive into such discussions instead of remaining silent is that subconsciously they know that other more experienced people will rip their baseless arguments to shreds, thereby pushing them to face their fears. This can help create cracks in the person’s resistance as their block begins to crumble.

Some people eventually come to realize that they’re blocking, and this helps them open their minds and take a deeper look at themselves. This is a difficult thing to do, and I have tremendous respect for people who can recognize their own blocks and look for ways around them. On the other hand, I also have a lot of compassion for people whose resistance is much stronger; they’re deeply afraid of what they may find on the other side.

Beyond Blocking

Based on my experience seeing many people go through this process, and having done it myself many times, I can at least turn the page and let you know what to expect when you begin to see your own blocks.

Initially it’s a humbling experience for most, and afterwards it opens the door to tremendous growth. But how that growth plays out is a bit different for everyone.

Some people experience a major breakdown as their old beliefs succumb to new truths. For a while nothing seems real anymore. It’s as if their whole reality is broken. They have to live one day at a time for a while to process what’s happening to them. If you find yourself in this place, rest assured it’s temporary. Just keep breathing, and you’ll work your way through it.

Other people go through this process much more gradually, spreading it out over years instead of weeks. Little by little, bits and pieces of their false beliefs are chipped away, and they begin to perceive reality more accurately than before.

In the end, the general attitude I see most often is one of gratitude. People look back and say things like, “It was hard, but it was surely worth it.”

Do you have blocks? Yes, we all do. If you’re aware of one or more of your blocks, then you have a chance to chip away at them. If you aren’t aware of any blocks, it simply means you aren’t ready to work on them yet. When you feel ready, simply say aloud to the universe, “Show me where I’m blocked.” Say it like you mean it. If your desire is genuine, you won’t have to wait long for one of your blocks to reveal itself.

One suggestion I have for overcoming such blocks is to educate yourself. Turn towards your fears in a gentle way by getting a book on the subject and reading about it. Education is a powerful antidote to fear.

Another option is to talk to people who’ve already gone through what you fear you might have to endure. They can share a more empowering perspective with you that you may not think is possible.

I was much less resistant to divorce, for example, after reading some books about it and talking to people who’d already gone through a divorce. Similarly, I felt a lot more comfortable running my own business after reading books by successful entrepreneurs.

If reading a whole book is too much of a commitment, then make an appointment to go to your local bookstore and read just one chapter of one book. Or read for just 20 minutes total. See if you can pick up one or two ideas that will help fill in some gaps in your knowledge.

Once you’ve educated yourself, it’s much easier to muster the courage to begin taking small action steps, and from there you can build momentum towards a greater transition.

Yet another option is to use the Lefkoe Method to identify and eliminate limiting beliefs, which takes about 20 minutes per belief. I’ve been recommending this method since 2009, and the feedback I’ve received on it since then has been wonderful. I know many people who’ve benefitted greatly from this technique.

Intelligent Judgments

Judgment isn’t a bad thing per se. Judgments are necessary for making good decisions. Your brain is wired to make judgments automatically because your survival depends on it. Whenever you decide what to eat or not eat, you’re making a judgment call.

In terms of personal growth, it’s important to strike the right balance between flexibility and rigidity in your judgments. If you’re too flexible, you become wishy-washy and can’t make strong decisions. Such people don’t function very well. They get tossed around by the currents of life. Other people run roughshod over them. They can’t build or sustain any serious momentum. They bounce around from one thing to another without any rhyme or reason, and their weak results reflect their lack of self-control.

On the other hand, too much rigidity can be just as problematic. Such people have a hard time seeing the big picture. False beliefs cripple them from growing in certain areas, so they remain perpetually stuck.

How can you tell the difference between good judgments and bad ones?

This is perhaps the simplest way to understand the difference. Good judgments yield accurate predictions. Bad judgments yield inaccurate predictions.

For example, if I post about something I’m going to do, and you make some predictions about what’s going to happen, how accurate are your predictions? Do my reported results fall within the range of your expectations, or do they violate your expectations? If your expectations are violated, it means you’ve based your predictions on one or more bad judgments.

One of my favorite ways to challenge people who are clearly succumbing to false beliefs is to push them to share some specific predictions based on their judgments. I simply ask them to share what they expect will happen next, preferably in public, such as by posting in our forums. For those who do it, it puts them on record, and it allows them to see if they were right in the long run. Some of these people make ridiculously erroneous predictions that any experienced person would find laughable, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from voicing their opinions with great certainty.

For example, when I was doing my 30-day trial of raw foods, I seem to recall that one person predicted something like,¬†“If you eat 100% raw vegan for 30 days, you will suffer protein deficiency symptoms. You’ll never make it to 30 days because otherwise you’d get sick and die.”

This person’s ignorance about basic nutrition led them to make a completely inaccurate prediction. Such is the nature of false knowledge — it leads to erroneous predictions.

What’s even more ridiculous is when people make erroneous back-predictions of events that have already turned out contrary to their false assumptions. For example, I’ve seen some people predict that if I try to eat vegan for 30 days, I’ll die from nutritional deficiencies… even though I’ve already been vegan since 1997. :)

Obviously these cases are extreme to the point of being ludicrous, but I share them because we all do this sort of thing to varying degrees. If we would put ourselves on record more often by sharing our best predictions and expectations, it would help expose more of our false beliefs, thereby giving us the opportunity to uproot and replace them with more accurate perspectives. If we can’t share any specific predictions, then a posture of open-mindedness makes more sense than one of closed-mindedness and rigidity. If we can’t make good predictions, we can’t claim any degree of certainty.

If you want to know if your judgments are accurate, make some predictions based on those judgments, and see if they come to pass as you expect. The more accurate your judgments, the more accurate your predictions will be. If your predictions turn out to be grossly inaccurate, take a deeper look at your judgments to see where you’ve gone wrong.

As you gradually fine-tune your judgments, you’ll consequently make more accurate predictions. And since you naturally rely on your predictions and expectations when making decisions, you’ll get better at making decisions that generate the results you desire. This has very practical consequences. It means more money in your wallet, better health and energy, and happier and more fulfilling relationships to enjoy.

It will take time and patience to calibrate your judgments effectively, such that your flexibility or firmness is appropriate to your level of knowledge and the circumstances you’re dealing with. Fortunately, your interactions with those who challenge you will automatically help you get there, if you hold the intention to keep growing and learning. :)



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