Reserving judgment

I would probably prefer to write another blog on the sense of entitlement that seems to be permeating through the ranks of today’s graduate students. However, unlike some pseudonym-wielding bloggers, who hide their identities behind closed doors in order to espouse vile and spiteful comments, my own blog is of course an open book. Meaning that there are many interesting and significant issues about which I would like to blog, but will be forced bide my time for now.

So as I pondered life on my way through my treadmill routine at the gym a few mornings ago, I had the opportunity to witness a phenomenon that I occasionally see every couple of months. In the row in front of me, a middle-aged man set his sights on an elliptical machine. He was decked out from toe to ear in the very latest and most modern sports gear: fancy training shoes, socks, shorts, neoprene shirt with matching wristbands and headband. All of his clothes were still creased in the manner they must have been stocked on the store shelves—just a day or two earlier.

But that’s not all—no indeed—not by a long shot! Additional accouterments included the latest Ipod and earbuds, and a full 3D audio-visual display. He set up an Ipad of some sort, something that resembled an external speaker, and an Iphone to check e-mails and make calls. Fully assembled and ready-to-run.

In contrast, when I began a formal exercise regimen some years ago, it took me 2 years until I decided to purchase even the most basic accessories—light shorts that don’t chafe the thigh (as opposed to cut-off jeans), and finally an Ipod. For over a year I battled slow wifi to try and listen to songs on UTUBE. I only caved in when all the fiddling with the BlackBerry nearly threw me off the treadmill.

Thinking about this gentleman and his 3D audio-visual (and he looked as though he hadn’t ever seen the inside of a gym), I couldn’t help noticing the degree to which I am judgmental. Psychologists spend many long hours with patients counseling them on how to let go of their judgmental attitudes (Just breathe, and accept, breathe and accept)—and here I am making a snap judgment about this man 30 seconds after his arrival and before he has even pushed the power button on his elliptical.

So making judgments about people in this manner is not going to increase my serenity, acceptance and mindfulness. It may even increase my stress levels. BUT, I have a feeling that this psychologically-incorrect behavior pattern is one of the most pertinent skills that a group leader needs to develop or have in today’s world of science.

The skill set for a PI definitely encompasses being able to accurately judge people—often on short acquaintance a PI needs to calculate whether a potential student, post-doc or technician will be an asset to the lab. Whether this person will be honest, responsible, determined, reasonable, hardworking, organized and disciplined, easy to get along with, and much more.

How did I become good not bad at making such snap judgments? Was it experience with a bipolar parent that helped? Or service in the military that honed my antennae? Or as a novel writer have I developed a second sense for judging character, and become a connoisseur of human nature? My two novels certainly harp on these themes, but I don’t have the answer.

So while I won’t win any psychological points for being non-judgmental, I reserve my right to judgment. Without it I’m dead in the water as a scientist.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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17 Responses to Reserving judgment

  1. chall says:

    Interesting thoughts there. I guess one of my questions is if you, when you have that quick judgement, are interested to see if you might be wrong in your first quick impression (judgement)? I would assume it’s my way of finding a positive spin on the thoughts that run through my own head when I see people like the man you describe (or other ones, with whom I interact with)…. since I think it’s “unfair” to judge by the apparence – yet how can I stop my thoughts before they even enter my head? I therefore try to know which of my feelings are “judgements based on quick things” and then try and rationalise them…. not really the greatest thing maybe, but I tried to voice my concerns about this in a blogpost from this summer when I was going through a hireing process and tried to understand my gut feeling vs my head looking at the references and “facts on paper” ….

    • Steve Caplan says:


      While it is “judging on appearance,” it’s not the appearance per se–but rather what that appearance represents about the person’s character. But I agree that, at least for me, the neurons go very quickly into overdrive on first encounter, and I inevitably do find the “rational justification” as the conscious thought process catches up with the snap judgment.

      • chall says:

        “it’s not the appearance per se–but rather what that appearance represents about the person’s character.” ahh but isn’t it the same thing? what you think the apparence says about character… as the old saying “dressed in clean clothes without holes” since the opposite would indicate not paying attention to yourself?

        But I agree with you, the neurons kick in a little too fast sometimes. I just focus on identify those “quick snap judgement” and look if they are any valid at all.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Here’s what I mean: I don’t judge the middle aged man badly because he is decked out with all the latest exercise fashion gear and audio-visual equipment for his elliptical jaunt. To each to his/her own. BUT, when he steps on the ellipitical and spends 8 minutes in total, most of the time spent on fiddling with the gadgets and gears, my instincts tell me that this might be a person who acts on whims, who perhaps spends lavishly on himself without first testing the waters to see if his chosen exercise is tolerable–and so on. That does tell me a lot about the character. On the other hand, if a highly fit person got on in the same gear and began vigorously exercising, my impression would be very different. A pro who knows what he/she is doing and how to do it best…

  2. cromercrox says:

    Steve – I earnestly suggest that you read ‘Us and Them’ by David Berreby. He goes into why we make such snap judgements and the evolutionary thinking behind it, something I discussed in a recent effusion –

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    How did I miss that blog of yours? I guess I was absorbed at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in Denver. I will definitely look up “Us and Them.” Pattern recognition fascinates me, as I spend so much time looking at patterns under the microscope. I think my students are often amazed that I can so quickly make judgments about these patterns–real or artefactual, etc. etc. So many of them will see only what they expect to see (or not)–even if there is an elephant staring at them in the face under the scope. But that’s another story.

    Thanks for the tip!

  4. ricardipus says:

    When she used to interview prospective employees, my wife would often say that she’d know within the first minute or two if the person was going to work out. I tend to have the same experience here in my role as hiring manager – although I’ll cop to having made a few errors. But generally that gut feeling in the first 30 seconds or so is pretty accurate. That’s more on personality and interaction though, although I suspect appearance has some unintentional influence as well.

    • cromercrox says:

      It’s the same with reading submissions to Everyone’s Favourite Weekly Professional Science Etcetera. First impressions are often very good guides to final result. Of course, one can get things wrong or change one’s mind (which is why one reads the paper thoroughly, just to make sure) but I’d say first impressions are pretty reliable.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Well, when you receive a ms with an abstract that contains a typo on every line, that’s not going to make a very good impression. As a reviewer and “academic” editor, I see this all the time, and it does not not predispose me to look fondly on the ms.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I think it’s perfectly fine to judge people who go to the gym in cut-off jeans! LMAO!

    I can’t do any kind of exercise without my iPod. However, I prefer spoken word over music, as it takes my mind of the tedium and pain. There are some amazing podcasts out there that you might enjoy – including a story-telling cast called Snap Judgment (from NPR) that is truly excellent!

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    LMAO???! Speak Englezo for us old middle aged guys. Or I’ll ask my daughter this evening.

    I’ll look for the NPR podcast–thanks!

  7. Heather says:

    I’m jealous. I am much more hit or miss in hiring. I see everyone’s qualities pretty quickly and do too much rationalization thereafter. The advantage in not trusting my judgment is at the bench, though. I am skeptical of my observations. And I learn from my mistakes… in both domains.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      The problem with assessing our success/judgment in hiring is that we often don’t have the other side of the coin. Perhaps my stringency has turned away even more successful scientists, and I don’t know it because they’re not in my line of vision. By this scenario, we can only really draw conclusions about the “Yes” judgments. But somehow my instincts say that I’m not missing anything…

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