Are You a Good Judge of Character?

I’m a lousy judge of character. Early on, that is. Once I get to know someone well, it’s a different matter (although I still tend to be too generous, even then). But I suppose anyone could say they’re good at sizing up the situation when the body of evidence is large. The true test is, can you judge someone’s character when you meet them? Or early on in a relationship, when the body of evidence is slight? I can’t. I tend to give people too much credit, only to be disappointed later when reality reveals itself.

I take some solace that I’m not alone in this weakness. Indeed, most people are poor judges of character. But that only gets me so far, principally because your grandmother is a pretty good judge of character, Vera. She’s a constant reminder of just how bad my judgment is in this regard.

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” comes to mind (named for David Dunning and Justin Kruger). Basically, it says that people who lack knowledge on a particular topic tend not to be unaware of their lack of knowledge; in other words, they don’t know enough to know how little they know. “Illusory superiority,” it’s been called.

According to Dunning, “To fall prey to another person you have to fall prey to your belief that you’re a good judge of character, that you know the situation, that you’re on solid ground as opposed to shifty ground.” Been there, done that.

So what is one to do? Well, it seems there are two options: 1) either improve my assessment of people’s character, or 2) stop relying on my own early assessments. I’ve chosen option # 2, mainly because I’ve not discovered any way of meaningfully improving my judgment about another’s character with little information to go on.

Yet it’s hard to keep an open mind — to admit you simply don’t know. We like to rush to judgment. Remaining in a state of cognitive suspension doesn’t feel right.

But it beats the alternative, I’ve learned. Frankly, I’m tired of being burned. And surprised. And disappointed. So, if I meet someone for the first time, I’m just going to assume they’re a scum bag until evidence to the contrary becomes compelling.

That’s a bit of an overstatement, of course. My approach is a more nuanced than that. It depends on the circumstances. And the risks.

In any case, I suppose the moral of this story, Vera, is not to overestimate your ability to make sound judgments with scant evidence. Or more bluntly, don’t think you’re smarter than you are. Unless you’re like your grandmother, of course, who’s pretty d**n smart.

P.S. The fact that people are such poor judges of character was demonstrated by people’s reaction to President Trump. I’ve heard (first or second hand) of people who voted for Mr. Trump but who now claim they could never vote for him a second time, now that they know what his character is and how unfit he is for the presidency. Even I wasn’t that bad a judge of character. It’s hard to imagine how people could have missed the signs, but it’s a reminder we all tend to miss signs from time to time.

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