(featured image via DALL·E)
Most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves as untrustworthy, or with poor judgement. But would others agree if they knew everything there is to know about us, or perhaps even only the very worst?
At the end of last month, a damning report was published in the UK, revealing a toxic culture of racism, misogyny and bullying in the London Fire Brigade. It describes how a noose was put on a black firefighter’s locker, and speaks of women firefighters being harassed and sexually assaulted and being told by male colleagues “we want to get you out of here, we don’t want you to be a fire officer”. A Muslim officer had bacon and sausages put in his coat pockets and a terrorist hotline sign posted on his locker. The findings are indicative of a kind of behaviour that most people would find unacceptable. But there is also a deeper significance to this behaviour, related to trust, judgement and decision making.
Judgement through a narrow gap
We cannot help trying to evaluate the people who walk into our life (and they cannot help evaluating us as we walk into theirs). “What kind of person is he or she?” Social beings as we are, we rely on each other to realize our goals, and we naturally want to avoid dealing with people whom we cannot trust not to take advantage of us, or who might cause us harm through poor decisions and judgement. We could ask them, but it would be rare for someone to admit they cannot be trusted, or that they are terrible at making decisions. In this respect, we are all very much subject to the Lake Wobegon effect (the phenomenon by which everyone considers themselves as better than average).
So, we rely on observation. We look at what they do, how they weigh up things, how their choices reveal what they do, and do not, value.
Imagine one of our children has a new boyfriend – let’s call him Jake – who seems attentive, smart and friendly. Unsurprisingly, we warm to him, and we consider him a suitable match for our daughter or son. Then, one day, we happen to find ourselves in the same train carriage as our potential future son-in-law. He is deeply engaged in banter with his friends and has not spotted us. Unintentionally, we listen in, and we hear him cracking a sexist joke. Later on, Jake relates an experience from a while back, when one night he had been road racing with a friend, lost control of his car and crashed into a traffic sign that “broke clean off”.
Or imagine we can promote one member of our team at work, and we are considering a couple of candidates. Chris appears to be the most suitable of the two: on the young side (still living at home), but a good team player who is eager to learn, hard-working and intelligent, a real high-potential employee. Yet, one evening, when both of us are staying late, we see Chris taking home a brand-new box of 10 pens from the stationery cupboard. Shortly after, an old friend joins us for a barbecue at our house. As we are chatting about work, the conversation turns to the imminent promotion in our team. As we describe Chris as our preferred candidate, our friend responds, saying that this person is one of his neighbour’s children. And this Chris, it would seem, had to spend a night in the cell after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly just a few weeks earlier.
It would be quite understandable, in both hypothetical situations, for us to drastically change our opinion about Jake and Chris. We wouldn’t want our son or daughter to share a car with someone who drives like a lunatic, or to promote someone who might bring our team and our company (and us!) into disrepute. We knew only a little about them to start with, and that was all good. Then that judgement got turned upside down by new, rather contradictory information.
But was this new information, in the wider scheme of things, any more significant? We rarely know a great deal about the people we interact with. Over time, we may see certain patterns emerge, but we can usually only see one very slim slice of their lives, and extrapolate a picture from there. We judge them through a narrow gap.
Too bad in parts
That is what others do about us, too, of course. Might there be things about us that, if our friends and colleagues knew them, would alter how they see us? Would we happily share everything from our life present and past with them, even if it might change their judgement? I don’t know about you, but I would certainly want to check what I would and would not reveal.
We are all curate’s eggs ** – good in parts, and in other parts, well, not quite so good. Do people’s not-quite-so-good characteristics matter, if we are pretty good overall? Unless we have a squeaky-clean profile ourselves, perhaps condemning people on the basis of just one bit of information would be a bit hypocritical (certainly if we would not be happy for others to condemn us in the same way). Rather than take the moral high ground, we might reflect on whether any detrimental piece of information we found out is an indicator of a violation of the two expectations we have from the people we interact with. Does it mean they might abuse our trust, or that they might harm us through unwise choices? Perhaps Jake’s sexist joke is not characteristic of his attitude, and perhaps taking home the pens does not mean Chris will steal our money or defraud the company. But dangerous driving, or being arrested for being drunk and disorderly, even if they are rare, might cast more doubt about whether their decisions might not ultimately be harmful to us.
And it is not just morally questionable behaviour in others that might make us consider whether they are trustworthy and have good judgement. Imagine a physician who also practises homoeopathy or naturopathy, or a nutritionist who practises applied kinesiology ** (not the study of human movement, but the alternative diagnostic approach). If we expect sound advice based on science, perhaps we should be wary of putting our trust in someone who, while in possession of scientific credentials, also engages in pseudoscience. We may have good reason to doubt the dependability of their judgement, despite their qualifications.
Returning to the fire brigade report, that is also why we should be concerned about its findings. If we heard similar stories about supermarket shelf stackers or workers at a hand car wash, we might raise our eyebrows and feel moral indignation, but it is unlikely that their reprehensible behaviour will cause us much harm. If a sizeable fraction of the members of the London Fire Service, however, appear to have poor judgement with respect to how they treat their colleagues, there might be justifiable doubt about the judgement calls they need to make under severe pressure in emergencies.
Nobody is perfect, and we all have good and not-so-good in us. But in some people – whether it is a propensity for reckless driving, being involved in quackery and pseudoscience, or exhibiting a repugnant attitude and behaviour at work – the bad dominates just too much.