Don’t Let Snap Judgments Bite You in the Butt

The story you tell yourself may not be true

Dark, rainy street

Credit: TheDigitalArtist @pixabay

You’re walking down the street at night when someone starts walking toward you.

You immediately “size them up.”

Safe? Unsafe? Iffy?

Sober? High?

Respectable? Disreputable?

Why are they hunched over? Are they hiding something?

What do I do?

You judge the situation in an instant, and right or wrong, you act based on your conclusion.

You make snap judgments continually throughout the day. You read facial expressions, check out body posture, watch gestures, assess clothing, and make a judgement.

First impressions are snap judgments and are made in an instant. Someone looks friendly, you smile at them. They look stern or angry, you avoid their gaze.

Snap Judgments Have Consequences

Snap judgement: a hasty decision or opinion (Merriam-Webster)

When you’re walking down a dark street, it’s wise to stay alert and quickly judge your surroundings as safe or not. Many situations benefit from this ability.

A sketchy person in a elevator? Wait for the next car.

People shouting angrily at each other? Leave the area.

A driver tailgates you. Move to a slower lane.

The ability to “size up” a situation or person immediately was an essential survival tool in early human history. Danger lurked everywhere, and safety depended on the ability to make snap judgements about whether to fight, flee, or relax. This instinctive response mechanism still works today. Often, your judgement is right, but sometimes a snap judgement can bite you in the butt.

Snap judgments involve an evaluation of something or someone as either right or wrong, safe or dangerous, likable or not. Your evaluation either accepts them or rejects them. This, in turn, affects how you respond to them.

“Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov has found that people respond intuitively to faces so rapidly that our reasoning minds may not have time to influence the reaction — and that our intuitions about attraction and trust are among those we form the fastest.”¹

When you accept them, your non-verbal communication automatically shifts into a more open, inviting mode. They, in turn, “read” your body language, and rapport is established. If your judgement is accurate, you have the start of a meaningful relationship. But what if your judgement is wrong? In this case, you have formed a relationship with someone who could do you harm.

On the other hand, if your snap judgement is negative, your non-verbal communication will be off-putting, and you will push away the person. Again, if your assessment is wrong, you would be alienating someone who might have been an ally and friend.

“Judgements prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” Wayne Dyer

Snap Judgments, Wrong Conclusions, and Bias

City traffic

Credit: Free-Photos @pixabay

You get cut off in traffic and throw on your brake to avoid a collision.

“What a jerk!” you think. “Didn’t even signal. They should get a ticket!”

Judgement: Bad driver and inconsiderate moron!

What if your judgement is wrong? What if they’re rushing to the bedside of a ill parent? What if they were avoiding someone veering into their lane of traffic?

You don’t know.

You form an opinion without factual data, and you look for “evidence” that supports your judgement. This is one reason why it’s hard to overcome a “bad” first impression. It’s natural for people to cling to what they believe is right — even if the facts contradict it.

“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”²

For example, if you judge that the shadowy figure walking toward you at midnight is dangerous, your senses will heighten. You will look for their slightest actions as proof that they, in fact, are dangerous and respond by crossing the street, ducking into an open business, or running away. You expect them to behave in a way that is consistent with your judgement even though there is no objective proof that your judgement is correct. You give into confirmation bias.

An experiment performed by researchers at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, studied the effects on the brain when participants were given evidence contrary to their strongly held political beliefs. They discovered that the brain responded similarly to its response when you experience physical pain.³

Confirmation bias affects your decision-making ability. Since you look for evidence that supports your perspective, you dismiss contrary information. When confronted with factual evidence that challenges you, you feel stress and anxiety and the need to protect yourself. You become more entrenched in your point of view and rigidly fixed on maintaining your position rather than admit your judgement was flawed. Your snap judgement has become a belief.

“The more rules you have about how people have to be, how life has to be for you to be happy, the less happy you’re going to be.” Tony Robbins

Don’t Let Snap Judgments Snap Back

Snapping crocodile

Credit: wildfaces @pixabay

You can’t avoid making snap judgements as you go throughout your day. Your brain is always on the lookout to protect you. In most situations, however, you can stop yourself from immediately assigning a value judgement to the situation or person.

Pay attention to your habitual responses. For example, if someone usually explodes in anger when they are cut off in traffic, this habitual response can lead to road rage. They view the event as a personal affront and may chase after the “perpetrator” to exact payment for the insult. A snap judgement combined with a habitual response can lead to unwanted, perhaps, dire consequences.

“Do not judge. Assess.” Naide P Obiang

One characteristic of a growth mindset is the willingness to admit a mistake and learn from it. Don’t assume that your first impression or evaluation is correct. Be open to information that contradicts it or challenges it.

Exercise critical thinking skills and take an objective stance. Instead of judging, assess the situation. Review facts and data, seek out the opinions of others, and be willing to change your judgement.

Stop. Think. Respond.


  1. Snap Judgments Decide a Face’s Character, Psychologist Finds by Chad Boudin, Princeton University
  2. “What Is Confirmation Bias?” by Shahram Heshmat Ph.D., Psychology Today.
  3. “Neural Correlates of Maintaining One’s Political Beliefs in the Face of Counterevidence,” by Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel, and Sam Harris,

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