Judging Other People During Lockdown Can Do More Harm Than Good

The judgment is real and distracting. But how can you stop it from consuming you?

As small numbers of people ignore social distancing measures, many others who have been stuck indoors are worried about their health, or the health of their loved ones, are raging as a result.

The actions of others pose a threat. As therapist Pam Custers puts it: “They’re symbolically running a red light.” We know the potential danger and strain on health services that may come from those who don’t properly social distance or follow the lockdown measures – and our instinct is to judge them.

You’d be forgiven for resenting people you see online (or out of your window) breaking the rules – but do you let it ruin the rest of our day? Or channel it into something more positive? And, if you want to focus on the latter, where do you even begin?

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Everyday we’re judging

As humans, we’re judgmental at the best of times, but lockdown is exacerbating that, and it’s really not surprising if you think about the emotional context.

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that judging people is a “protective instinct”. Given the circumstances, and the fact people are doing things that could be perceived as a threat to our health and the health of others, it seems only natural to judge them. Our brain is telling us to back off. Not to trust them.

People instinctively want to be part of a group that makes them feel safe and welcome. “But the problem is that’s not really how western society is structured,” says psychologist Dr Simon Stuart, who works in mental health services in Scotland.

“Western society is very individualistic. We tend to scrabble around trying to find groups – it might be our loved ones, our family – if we’re lucky we might have a sense of wider belonging than that. But most of us don’t.”

We look for places and groups where we feel safe, but these are not necessarily forthcoming, particularly at a time like this – and our mind starts taking shortcuts to try and seek out these places of safety, Dr Stuart suggests.

“When we’re feeling insecure or scared, we are going to seize on anything at all that makes us feel, in the moment, a little bit better about who we are or what we’re doing.”

- Dr Simon Stuart

“One of the quickest shortcuts that we take is we start to define ourselves by what we’re not,” he says. “So if we don’t feel particularly comfortable or safe as part of an in-group, we’ll start to look for an out-group that we can criticise.

“We are making ourselves feel better by saying: ‘Well, I might be anxious but at least I’m not like them.’ We do that at the best of times, but at a time of uncertainty, when we’re feeling insecure or scared, we are going to seize on anything at all that makes us feel, in the moment, a little bit better about who we are or what we’re doing.”

We need to stop making assumptions

“We as individuals are very good at jumping through all sorts of cognitive hoops to justify our own behaviour,” says Dr Stuart. “But there’s a massive body of evidence that says we do that for ourselves, but for others we’re much less forgiving. We’ll justify our own behaviour but cut somebody else much less slack and basically assume the worst in other people.”

It’s important to have the full facts about others before we cast judgment but we rarely do. “Shaming and blaming are never very useful,” says Pam Custers, who runs online therapy sessions at The Relationship Practice. “We may see someone sitting on a bench, but actually they’ve been for a walk and have a sore back, and then their picture is all over Facebook. We don’t have the full facts of any situation. People have been unfairly castigated when others have the wrong information – it’s a dangerous one.”

On top of this, the society we live in is a punitive one, generally. This can be seen in some of the press, says Dr Stuart, which can be quick to stigmatise.

“We live in this very atomised society where the constant message is: be suspicious, don’t trust other people. That’s not to say there aren’t people out there right now doing things that are unhelpful and dangerous, but they will be using all their own biases and shortcuts to justify what they’re doing, too.

“A lot of the people who are doing these things probably won’t realise that what they’re doing could be problematic. They’re not really being given enough of a clear message about what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

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Focus on those who follow the rules

Rather than punishing, shaming or attacking people – which doesn’t work and just brings resentment at what people already feel are discriminatory rules, suggests Dr Stuart – we should focus as a society on the majority of people who are doing their very best in challenging circumstances.

The problem with attacking and shaming is that it further divides people into camps – them and us. “It’s very understandable that people are going to want to go out. If they’re then attacked and blamed and judged for doing that, we get back into that problem of groups,” says the psychologist. “People are going to think: ‘well, where is my group?’ They’re going to look at the people judging and attacking, and say: ’you’re not like me, why should I listen to you?’”

Socially, the key thing is to reinforce and reward the kind of behaviours we do want to see, he suggests. “It creates a new wider in-group that people can be part of and people feel good to be part of,” he says. “It also normalises that behaviour if you’re promoting the positive message that says this is the kind of behaviour we want to see.

“If we can promote a message that by maintaining physical distance you are helping the NHS, you are helping the vulnerable, you are helping older people whose immune systems are compromised – that’s really important.

“You’re giving a rationale for it, you’re making people feel part of something bigger – and that’s infinitely more useful and more likely to work than simply shouting at people.”

Be kind, always

On an individual level, kindness is key – not just to others, but to ourselves.

“My default is to be very critical, very judgmental,” admits Dr Stuart. “What I do as a psychologist isn’t to beat myself up for that, but I try to slow down and recognise that there’s my judgmental mind kicking in again. Ok, the thoughts are perfectly normal, I have no control over what thoughts show up, I have no control over the anger that shows up alongside that, but what I do have control over is what I do in response.”

If you can notice the thoughts you’re having and take a moment to sit with them – so not rushing to post on social media or embark on a rant to your housemates or Whatsapp thread – then you can slow down, recognise you’re only human, and reflect on why you feel the way you do.

Ask yourself: do I know enough about what other people are going through before I start accusing them? Can I put myself in their shoes?

“If we can notice our own biases, then it helps us be a bit kinder to other people,” says Dr Stuart, who also suggests thinking about what we learn about ourselves from our reactions. What’s it telling us about what really matters?

“It tells us some interesting stuff, it tells us that we care. It tells us that we care about society and we care about our health, the health of our loved ones. If we can slow down, notice that and can allow the difficult thoughts to be there. We can then ask: what can I do to pursue that value of caring?

Getting cross, shaming people, joining in a social media pile-on – none of these are helpful. Instead, reflect. What can you do to try to model the behaviour you would want to see? While we might get a quick boost from posting something scathing to social media about someone who flouts the rules, ultimately it won’t leave you feeling any better about the situation. In fact it’s very likely that you’ll just sit stewing in the negativity of it all. It will eat you up.

“We have to be kind on ourselves; we’re not bad people to make judgments,” adds Custers. “Do what you can with your own life. You can’t condone other people’s behaviour but at the same time you can make sure your behaviour is in alignment with your own inner values.”

She adds: “We need to look at things with compassion. I think we have to call out behaviour that is directly dangerous but need to have compassion for those who are trying to do the best they can with what they have available.”

So, while it’s hard not to judge harshly the actions of others, it can be done.

Dr Stuart concludes: “I’m optimistic that what we’re learning through this is if we want to look after ourselves, and we want what’s best for ourselves and our families, we will realise being altruistic and thinking about the bigger picture is absolutely essential.”