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Discerning good judgement requires… good judgement


November 28, 2014
By Dorothy Cotton

1392 words – MR

Discerning good judgement requires… good judgement

Once when I was a young-un, I applied for a job with a Catholic social services agency and put on my resume that I was a member of the Planned Parenthood Association of Canada. Duh. Speaking of bad judgment… I did not get an interview.

One of the various activities I occupy myself with professionally is doing pre-employment psychological assessment for police wannabees. As most of you probably know, there is a fairly standardized process for doing this. You give a couple of tests, maybe do an interview and review some file information, look at employment and behavioural history and you (the psychologist) come up with some opinion as to whether the candidate: (1) is free from major psychological issues which would interfere with their ability to perform the duties of a police officer and (2) appears to be “suitable.” Suitability is a broader concept and includes reference to a wide range of personality characteristics or behavior patterns which are relevant to functioning as a police officer.

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Somewhere underlying many of these competencies is the vague notion of “good judgment.” Needless to say, we always hope police officers have the ability to exercise good judgment. Alas, when it comes to defining exactly what that means and how to measure it, things get complicated.

The Authority on All Things (Wikipedia) says that judgment means “the evaluation of evidence to make a decision.” I am not sure that really captures it though. Making a decision is one thing – but there is also generally action involved. You have to DO something. I kind of dictionary.com’s definition – judgment is the ability to make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion, and also includes the demonstration or exercise of such ability or capacity. <1>

It seems to follow that one aspect of good judgment includes the evaluation of evidence. Does the person in question consider all the available information? If they lack information do they seek out additional info or just guess? Do they rely solely on their own personal experience and ignore the experience of others? Are they disdainful of “book learning” or other independent sources of information?

Do they have inherent biases that prevent them from considering all the options? Have they considered the unique characteristics of the particular situation facing them as opposed to other situations which may have been similar – but not identical? How carefully do they listen to opinion or information that contradicts their own experience? Are they aware of how much they know and don’t know? Many a bad decision has been made because people don’t know what they don’t know.

Once a person has whatever information they consider to be needed, are they capable of generating alternative solutions? If they can see only one answer to a problem, then it seems pretty likely they will choose that answer. Can they actually think up a variety of alternatives to a situation?

If a person thinks the only possible answers to a question are A or B, they are likely in trouble if the better solution would have been C, W or 4. This kind of problem solving requires a degree of cognitive flexibility – the ability to see the same thing from many different angles and therefore general alternative solutions. This is particularly critical when you encounter situations outside of your previous experience or knowledge.

Generating possible solutions to new problems can be particularly challenging for highly rule bound (‘by the book’ types) or people who are generally less intelligent. Those who are significantly lower than average intelligence overall will tend to struggle in new situations and have trouble generating alternative responses.

Good judgment is a whole lot more than problem solving. Even if you come up with a good solution you have to implement it – or stop yourself from doing something else. Impulse control is important. Many bad decisions are made by people who act first and think later; they might even know they are making a wrong decision but can’t stop themselves.

You also need to have the specific skill set to implement the decision you make. It’s all well and good to decide that your socks need darning, but if you can’t sew…

Underlying all of this, of course, is a person’s motivation. If they are not motivated to make good decisions, then they probably won’t. Sometimes, we really don’t care. I don’t always read the ingredient list on foods I buy or always compare prices – because sometimes, I really just don’t care. It might mean not getting the best or cheapest item… but maybe I am OK with that in certain circumstances. Or I might have a motivation that is different from other people. Consider the career criminal, for example. Their motivation may well NOT be to live a crime-free life, much as we like to think that would be a goal everyone shares.

Good judgment does not end when the immediate solution is implemented. The person with good judgment also has the ability to reflect on his or her own past behaviour and learn from it. Partly that means you have to have a functioning memory – and be self-aware and self-critical. Generally this is not a lot of fun. It’s a whole lot easier to blame someone else than say “I screwed up, and I did so because..”

Unfortunately, human beings as a species are not very good at self evaluation. There is a ton of literature indicating that the better people are at something, the more they underestimate their skill level – and alas, the worse people are, the more they overestimate themselves.

I try to look at many of these things when I am doing a pre-employment assessment. I suspect you do the same when you are choosing a person for a particular task, need advice, want someone to have your back or are considering making a major life decision.

Now and then, when doing my pre-employment psychological assessments, I get a candidate with excellent test scores, a good employment record, solid references – but who seems to do dumb things. Maybe they got lost coming to my office for the interview because they assumed they’d be able to find the place and did not bring along the instructions I sent them.

Maybe they are 30 years old and have three kids, each with a different (and former) partner. Maybe they smoked marijuana “only once ever” but it was in the last month, while they were in the process of applying for police jobs.

Maybe they used derogatory language to refer to people with mental illnesses – when one thinks a reasonable person would have the good judgment not to talk like that (regardless of what you really think about mental illness) when talking to a psychologist.

There was the candidate who referred to his father as “elderly and frail and sort of out of it – you know, about your age.” Another guy was in a panic because the parking meter had eaten his looney and he wanted my advice on what to do about that. <2>

There are people who have only one speeding ticket, one use of drugs, one bar fight, one reprimand at work, one suspension from school – only one of this and one of that but the “ones” add up to a consistent pattern of bad decisions over time.

What conclusions can you draw from these bits of information? There is no simple answer and it will vary depending on the specifics. Whether you are the applicant or the person hiring or selecting someone for a special assignment – or just trying to do your job to the best of your ability, it is worth asking, “what exactly IS good judgment and how do I make sure I have it and select people who have it?”

<1> One of the joys of the Internet is that you can hunt around until you find someone who agrees with whatever it is that you had in mind to start with. Mind you, this approach does not really indicate very good judgment.

<2> I am not telling tales that breach confidentiality here in case you are worried about my professional ethics. These are illustrative of the types of things people have said to me and are not to be taken literally.