In January of 2019, an actor, Jussie Smollett called the Chicago police to report that he had been assaulted by two white men in the early morning. Smollett, who is a black gay man, alleged that the men had shouted racial and homosexual slurs at him, had poured a chemical substance on him, and had put a noose around his neck.
The police investigated and determined that Smollett had paid two actors $3,500 to stage the assault. Smollett was eventually charged with 4 felony counts for filing a false police report.
But before that happened—in fact, before the police investigation even began, two United States Senators weighed in.
Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey tweeted, “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching. I’m glad he’s safe…”
Future Vice President Kamala Harris, then a Senator from California, tweeted, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery. This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin…”
How did two US Senators get fooled by Smollett’s claim?
A simple explanation: They made rash decisions and rushed to judgment. To make good judgments, you first need to assess the situation, and that means you need to get hold of good evidence about it. Until you have that, don’t make a judgment. Instead, withhold judgment (perhaps indefinitely) until decisive evidence becomes available.
Withholding judgment is the default attitude for free thinkers. A free thinker is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. Unlike people who rush to accept or reject the claims they hear, free thinkers don’t. They’re committed to knowing what’s true, and knowing something involves more than merely believing it.
For one thing, you can only know what’s true. You can believe that 2+2=5, but you can’t know it. Because free thinkers are committed to knowledge not mere belief, they don’t accept or reject a claim until they have good reasons to think it’s true. Until they have those reasons, they withhold judgment. Let’s explore withholding judgment further.
Buffett’s Three Buckets to Avoid Rash Decisions
Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger manage a multi-billion dollar investment company, and they use three imaginary buckets for each investment opportunity to make a balanced decision. Bucket one is for all decisions they accept to “buy” investments like Coca-Cola and See’s Candies. Bucket two is for all decisions they reject and “won’t buy” investments like gold and other metals. The third bucket is “too hard to understand” investments like Google, Facebook, and Bitcoin. They put every investment decision into one of these three imaginary buckets.
Just like Buffett, a free thinker can use the three buckets to make better judgments. For a free thinker, all claims fit into 1 of 3 buckets: accept, reject, or withhold judgment. When you accept a claim, you believe it to be true. When you reject a claim, you believe it to be false. When you withhold judgment, you hold off on accepting or rejecting the claim.
Since Free Thinkers’ have a long-term goal to know and understand what’s true, their default to claims is withholding.
Some people think their only options are either to accept or to reject a claim. Sometimes the motivation for making rash decision is ego: they want to feel like they’re right, or knowledgeable, or they want to win an argument. A free thinker prioritizes truth over ego. Free thinkers would rather know what’s true than win an argument, or believe something false, or feel as though they’re right.
A free thinker is not afraid to say, “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand it,” “I’m not sure,” to exercise their ability to withhold judgment.
Make New Decisions Using Pencil Not Pen
Let’s do a thought experiment: Suppose I give you a single piece of paper to write down the 10 most important things you have learned in the last 10 years. Would you write in pencil or pen? The chances of getting your list right on the first try in perfect order are slim to none. Since in this case you only have one piece of paper, you are better off writing in pencil. It leaves you room to change the order, your wording, or your mistakes.
Withholding judgment is like using a pencil. You think you only have the option to accept or reject, but all of the sudden you find a third option: withholding judgment. When it comes to truth, withholding judgment gives you time to think things through and change your mind if new facts come to light.
In the Smollett claim, the two US Senators could have withheld judgment until the police investigated. Instead, they went ahead and accepted the claim and made a rash decision. Defaulting to either accepting or rejecting a claim prevented them from making a balanced decision.
When you heard the story about Smollett, what was your immediate reaction to his claim? Did you accept it? Did you reject it?
Tribes and Rash Decisions
There are many factors that trigger making rash decisions. Let’s talk about one of them: belonging to a tribe.
A tribe is a group of people who feel connected to each other by blood lines, ethnicity, religion, politics, nationality or causes– pro-abortion, anti-gun, immigration reform, etc. Tribe members accept and reject claims based on their tribe, and the default attitude for tribe members is acceptance or rejection. If you question the acceptance of tribal beliefs, you can’t belong to that tribe. For example, if you are liberal, you can’t reject the pro-choice belief, or if you are Asian, you can’t accept another tribe’s beliefs on pain of being labeled a sell-out.
Tribes are fed by polarization. Tribes cultivate us-versus-them attitudes: we are good, and they are bad; we are rational, and they are irrational; we are smart, and they are stupid.
Today, the media and politicians exploit our tribal tendencies by polarizing tribes through 24/7 repeated exposure to persuade their audiences that people disagree with each other. The media and politicians have mastered the art of the creating illusion that most people disagree with each other.
For example, the media and politicians will use immigration to polarize the opposing tribe. They’ll make it seem like everyone on the liberal tribe wants open borders and everyone on conservative tribe wants to stop immigration. The truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. If you talk to most liberals, they will agree that we can’t allow anyone and everyone to cross the borders, and most conservatives will agree that we should allow immigration based on family and merit.
Tribe membership steers you toward only two options for judgment: Accept or Reject. On the other hand, a free thinker is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true, they default to a third option that gives them time to make better judgments: they withhold judgment.
The Benefits of Withholding Judgment
For the free thinker every new claim goes through the withholding judgment bucket. A free thinker waits to collect enough reasoning to accept or reject. If there is not enough reason, then they are open to withhold judgment.
Matter of fact, a free thinker defaults to withholding judgment. By withholding judgment, you are in a position to see the claim from all angles and strengthen your commitment to knowing and understanding what’s true.
If there is no urgency to a claim, then there is no pressure to judge right away. For example, suppose there is no pressure for a free thinker to make a judgment about the claim that God exists. As part of their commitment to what’s true, they can withhold judgment until they get decisive evidence either way. They can afford to be patient when it comes to evaluating the evidence. This leaves a window open to accepting or rejecting the claim as the evidence becomes available.
Withholding judgment is an expression of a commitment to free thinking. It also has fringe benefits:
- It helps you avoid making rash decisions. You are able to take your time and evaluate evidence for and against a claim fairly.
- It makes you a better listener. You are able to pay full attention and listen to arguments for or against a claim instead of rushing to judgment.
- It makes you more flexible. You can change your mind if new information comes to light.
- It makes you more open-minded. You are open to new ideas if you are not busy defending your current point of view.
- It makes you more humble. You realize that you make mistakes, and take care to avoid them and course-correct when needed.
Sometimes you really are forced to make a judgment. Your life might actually depend on it in some cases. But usually it doesn’t. When you don’t have the pressure to rush to judgment, you can take your time to assess the claim from several different perspectives by checking arguments for and against it.
With some practice, withholding judgment becomes the go-to tool for a free thinker.