Older man shopping in grocery store. Side view choosing fresh fruits and vegetables in supermarket.
Mental Health

Keeping an open mind: the value of withholding judgment 

If we put off making decisions until we’ve gathered all the evidence available, life as we know it would be impossible. 

We’d no longer be able to act on our instincts and intuition. 

Choosing between competing job offers would require such extensive research that jobs would be gone before we decided. 

A task as simple as choosing an avocado at the grocery store could take hours. 

We have to oversimplify the world to make decisions quickly and keep moving forward. 

Eric Burk

Key Points: 

  • Our brains are wired to oversimplify complex information. This allows us to make decisions quickly in situations that are too complex or fast-moving for us to fully understand. It contributed to the survival of our ancestors and helps keep us safe today. Life would be unlivable without it.  
  • But this ability comes at a price. In the process of simplifying the world, our brains distort our perception of it, leading us to believe things about people and situations that aren’t always accurate.
  • Fortunately, we can suspend this process when we need to. Techniques like Mindfulness can help us delay making judgments and develop a deeper and more accurate understanding of the people and situations around us. This leads to better decision-making and more effective problem-solving.   

What would life be like if we didn’t oversimplify? 

In his book Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes a patient named Elliot who’d lost the ability to use his emotions when making decisions. Damage caused by a frontal lobe tumor forced him to rely exclusively on logic.  

Despite being an intelligent man who scored normally on every test administered, Elliot was incapable of making decisions unless he amassed a large body of evidence that clearly supported one choice over another. If offered two different appointment times, Elliot would still be weighing the pros and cons 30 minutes later. If asked to choose a restaurant for lunch, he would drive to each location and study the menu, the seating arrangement, and the wait times. He would still be deliberating when the day came to an end.   

So, the ability to simplify our world – to make decisions before we have enough information -- is something we don’t want to lose. Fortunately, most of us can’t. Because it was crucial to our ancestors’ survival, the ability is encoded in our DNA. It’s part of who we are. We oversimplify things automatically. We’re wired to make decisions quickly.  

Seeing things that aren’t really there.

But this ability comes at a price: In the process of simplifying the world, our brains distort our perception of it. We see patterns in situations where no patterns exist. We think we can predict whether a coin will land heads or tails based on the outcome of previous tosses. We label people as good or bad before we’ve really gotten to know them; once we apply a label, we assign greater weight to observations that support the label than to those that conflict with it.  

We stop listening to opposing viewpoints because we assume we already understand them. We make assumptions about entire populations based on our experiences with two or three people. When we imagine our world to be more straightforward than it is, decisions are easier to make. But good decisions take more time. 

Fortunately, we can suspend this process. 

By training our brains to withhold judgment, we can remain open to new information for longer periods of time than we normally would and come closer to seeing things as they really are. The longer we can hold off putting a label on something, the more sophisticated our understanding of it becomes; the more accurate our understanding is, the better our decisions can be.

Mindfulness is one of the most common techniques for experiencing the world without passing judgment on it. Rooted in Eastern religious practices, it has become a fixture of American culture since its introduction as a form of therapy in 1979.

Mindfulness involves several different practices, but a basic premise is this: As soon as we apply a label to something – good, bad, right, wrong – mental windows close, we lose the ability to develop a more accurate understanding of it. Our perception remains simplistic and, in some cases, entirely misguided.

If our task is choosing avocados, there’s no harm in this; we don’t need the best avocado to make good guacamole. But if our goal is getting along with other people and successfully resolving disagreements, the ability to withhold judgment is crucial.  

Conflicts that seem insurmountable are often the result of simple misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions that could easily be identified if we just kept listening a little longer.






More about the author

Eric brings over 30 years of mental health experience, serving individuals, couples, and families. As the Clinical Director of an intensive outpatient program, he specialized in mental health and substance abuse treatment. Eric’s background includes mentoring therapists and providing direct client care. He’s a licensed psychotherapist with expertise in a wide range of conditions, employing diverse therapeutic approaches with an emphasis on empathetic listening and unconditional positive regard. Eric and his wife Lynn, also a licensed therapist, enjoy family travel adventures and have explored destinations worldwide.

Related Topics:

Subscribe to the Medicine Cabinet

Get the best of our cabinet content! We’ll summarize and send you the week’s most actionable advice to help you prioritize your personal health.