How We Form Judgments of Other People: Female Circumcision, Lying, the Jury System and the Scientists’ “Sacred p<.05"

This afternoon I was watching a BBC news report about the new Egyptian law banning female circumcision — the traditional practice of cutting off the clitoris of young girls. A survey revealed that 70% of Egyptian women respondents say they were circumcized. Westerners judge such practices as barbaric. Interviewed by BBC, an Egyptian mother entertains an opposite judgment, namely, that uncircumcized females are unclean. “They must be cleansed. Who will marry them if they are not circumcised? It will bring shame to the family.”

Some of our judgments of people were clearly culturally-dictated. Others were the result of obscure personal decisions we made sometime in the past.

What is your answer to this question: “After how many times that you catch a person lying when you conclude that the person is a liar?”



I asked many of my friends this question. The answer ranges from once to thrice. It is rare that people wait for four or more occasions of lying before concluding that the person in question is a liar. We make a judgment on trustworthiness after we see a behavior pattern repeated only one to three times.

That is how quickly we make conclusions about a person’s untrustworthiness. We are quick to judge untrustworthiness. Trust, on the other hand, takes longer to build. This means that for most people, they do not like to bear the (material) risk or cost of trusting someone whose future action shows he is not trustworthy. To them this cost is more important than the (goodwill) cost from not trusting someone when in fact he is trustworthy. Material costs seem to be more important to most people than goodwill costs.

In the American jury system, if only one juror in twelve entertains reasonable doubt, a man cannot be condemned for a criminal offense. In Scotland, there are fifteen jurors (thanks to Michael Heaney for pointing this out). The reason is that Western legal systems consider the cost (to the individual accused) of condemning an innocent person to be more important than the cost (to the rest of society) of not punishing a guilty person. In the Western mindset, an individual’s rights are paramount.

In modern scientific practice, a conclusion is not accepted for publication if the probability that that conclusion is wrong is more than 5%. This is the “sacred p<.05" criteria among scientists. Scientists' criterion for acceptance is stricter than the jury system. To scientists, getting at the empirical truth is a more strict procedure than establishing criminal guilt in a Western jury system.

There is a big problem from this scientific practice.

If accepting vs. rejecting a scientific hypothesis entails very substantial economic and social consequences (e.g. global warming, cancer from cigarette smoking, etc.), insisting on the "sacred p<.05" criterion is foolish. The social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the sex life of fruit flies is miniscule compared to the social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the global climate or cancer from cigarette smoking.

What I am saying is that the p<.05 decision rule is incomplete. It must be weighed by the total planetary costs and benefits of making wrong decisions: the costs and benefits of accepting a hypothesis when in fact it is wrong and the costs and benefits of rejecting it when in fact it is correct.

But back to how people construct their mental models.

Our judgments and assumptions about other people, and the process by which we adopt them, are often unconscious and obscure. Here is a practical way to make them explicit for conscious re-evaluation. Only if these judgments and assumptions are made explicit can we revisit them and ask questions such as: How have they been (unconsciously) affecting my decisions on the person? Are these judgments/assumptions still valid? If not, how do I revise them?

Select a person with whom you have problematic communications or relationship. Let’s call him Reuben. Fill in the following incomplete questions:

Reuben should… (enumerate)
Reuben should not… (enumerate)

What I like about Reuben are… (enumerate)
What I don’t like about Reuben are… (enumerate)

Reuben has a bad habit of… (enumerate)
Reuben has a good habit of… (enumerate)

Just list whatever comes to your mind, without editing or censoring. The objective is to make these judgments and assumptions explicit so that the owner of these judgments and assumptions can objectify and examine them, and see whether they are still valid and scrutinize whether they are based on deeper assumptions that can be further re-examined.

Not doing the above could mean that our communication with the person will continue to be problematic. Since we cannot identify possible root-causes within ourselves, then we continue to be the victims of our own assumptions and we cannot resolve the problematic communication.

These are tools in personal knowledge management and organizational learning. Ability to manage one’s mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to guru Peter Senge.

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One Response to “How We Form Judgments of Other People: Female Circumcision, Lying, the Jury System and the Scientists’ “Sacred p<.05"”

  1. Mindset Mastery Says:

    Mindset Mastery…

    […]How We Form Judgments of Other People: Female Circumcision, Lying, the Jury System and the Scientists’ “Sacred p<.05" « Apin Talisayon’s Weblog[…]…

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