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Neuropsychology of Snap Judgments and How to Improve Their Accuracy

Updated on July 1, 2018

A judgment formed on the instant without deliberation is called snap judgment. It can be likened to one's instincts which come with the first impressions of another person. They appear invisible to our conscious awareness. Sometimes we just have a gut feeling about something, but we can't explain why.

There goes an old aphorism – judge a book by its cover. Although we are advised not to judge a book by its cover, we still do it so many times. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.

Since snap judgments are a form of positional thinking, they can be – positive or negative:

  • When positive, they don’t harm a person’s self-worth but, on the other hand, may be helpful in bolstering it up.
  • When negative, they harm a person’s self-worth causing emotional turmoil in the person. They generate emotional pollution in the environment that we share with others.

Snap judgments happen outside of our awareness of the unconscious processes of the mind. They have their own far-reaching implications. Even in many cases where we already have a lot of information, a snap judgment overpowers decision making. Most of the time we do this unconsciously or by intuition. For example, when we step into the voting booth, the candidate’s face drives our decision even though we have information about the candidate’s platform, voting record, experience, and qualifications.

Neuropsychology of snap judgments -

Why does the brain make a snap judgment is not yet entirely clear? The researchers suggest that the part of the brain, called Amygdala, that responds directly to fear may be involved in judgments of trustworthiness. Besides the perception of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness, the amygdala helps to store memories of events and emotions so that an individual may be able to recognize similar events in the future.

The fear response involving the amygdala existed in animals for millions of years before the development of the pre-frontal cortex, where rational thoughts come from. We normally think that trust is a sophisticated response. But researchers find that trust might be a case of a high-level judgment being made by a low-level brain structure, perhaps the signal bypassing the pre-frontal cortex altogether.

Regardless of this, it doesn’t imply that quick first impressions cannot be overcome by the rational mind.

We will learn that many snap judgments are good judgments. But, in some circumstances, snap judgments can lead to unnecessary risks and mistaken biases.

There are two systems of approach to human judgments:

Reactive approach – It relies heavily on situational cues, salient memories, and heuristic thinking (reliable cognitive shortcuts employing practical methods) to arrive quickly and confidently at judgments, particularly when situations are familiar and immediate action is required.

Reflective approach – It is useful for judgments in unfamiliar situations, for processing abstract concepts, and for deliberating when there is time for planning and more comprehensive consideration. Reflective thinking also uses cognitive heuristics.

Cognitive heuristics are natural human decision-making shortcuts we all rely upon in real life to expedite our judgments about what to believe or what to do.

How to pass accurate snap judgments? –

Normally, people shy away from judgmental friends and acquaintances. Most people prefer relationships with those who are accepting and empathetic. So it becomes mandatory that we develop the skill of avoiding to pass snap judgments on others so as to make our interactions better and effective.

Below are mentioned some of the effective ways of avoiding to pass judgments:

Listen intently – It is a common practice that when we come to a conclusion about a person or their motives, we stop listening. Unfortunately, this may lead to us making inappropriate snap judgments. Listening intently to other’s messages without interrupting them will help us understand their messages better, which might result in a different conclusion.

Ask more questions – When we are judgmental, you close off possibilities of understanding. When curious, we are open to learning and receiving. So ask more questions to tease out the meaning of a message instead of judging or making assumptions.

Try to understand other’s emotions – During communication, each just wants to be heard and understood. Rather than passing judgments about others, try to step into their shoes. Consider their feelings and motivations. Imagine what circumstances may have led them to make that decision.

Beware of the tendency to judge – We all have the tendency to judge. The only way to stop passing judgment is to know when you are doing it in the first place. Be connected with your self-talk so as to avoid trouble reframing it. Spend some time tuning it to your judgments of yourself and others. Consider again why you decided to take a particular decision. Keep a log so that you can identify patterns in your judging behavior.

Watch underpinnings - When we are unhappy with some aspect of others, we are more likely to project our dissatisfaction onto them. For example, we judge a coworker for being late, but we do so because we secretly envy how carefree this person is. So we should avoid taking into account any pre-conceived notions about others so that we can make unbiased judgments.

The bottom line –

As a matter of fact, subconscious snap judgments play a far more significant role in our lives than most people realize. Some of them turn out well whereas others are disasters.

The researchers conclude that there is evidence that our brains make judgments of people before we even process who they are or what they look like. This supports the fact that we make very fast judgments about people. If we can control this tendency of making fast judgments, we will be able to make more accurate snap judgments.

We can learn to effectively employ specific skills to pass accurate snap judgments and thus avoid many disappointments in our day-to-day interactions.


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