November 15, 2018 -

Judgments, Vows, and Generalizations, Oh My!

Vows Judgements and Generalizations

“Watch your thoughts, they become words … watch your words, they become actions … watch your actions, they become habits … watch your habits, they become character … watch your character, it becomes your destiny!”

The by which we make sense of our world and which controls our decision-making is easily influenced and can work powerfully against us. We must understand how our minds work if we want to understand the business of trust.

Imagine what it would be like trying to drive if you could not trust what other drivers were going to do. What if you couldn’t be sure that other vehicles would stay in the correct lane of traffic or that they might slam on the brakes in front of you without a reason? What if you could not depend on your own brakes to stop your car when you wanted? You’d probably conclude that it is safer to rely on another mode of transportation than try to drive anywhere.

In a similar fashion, we expect a certain consistency in our relationships with friends, relatives or other aspects of life. If someone claiming to be a loyal friend or relative habitually misuses, manipulates, and treats us with disrespect, then we will probably avoid or cut off the relationship.

We all make judgments.

Beginning in childhood, we take note of and judge other people’s behavior. These judgments are expressed in terms of how their actions affect us—whether their behavior brings us pain or pleasure physically and emotionally. We might think things like That feels good; That hurts; I like that; I don’t like this; He is mean; She is nice, and so on.

As we mature, we learn how friends, relatives and other acquaintances are supposed to treat each other. When someone does not treat us according to what we define as “normal,” we determine that something is wrong, so we do something to try to make ourselves more comfortable—we may confront them or avoid them.

Such judgments can begin at an early age, even in infancy. Though not always consciously verbalized, these judgments may exist as feelings. They become embedded in our memories. The episodes that we judge do not even have to happen to us. We may form judgments based on events we’ve witnessed in others’ lives.

We take offense for others.

I can look through any daily newspaper and not read far before becoming angry. Our society is inundated with incidents of senseless crime. Recently, the 11-year-old son of a member of a sister church died while in the care of a foster home.

Amid a continuing police investigation, they are considering filing charges against employees of the foster care home for his wrongful death.

The boy’s Sunday school teacher was outraged at the death. He took offense for that boy who was unable to defend himself.

When we take offense for others, we make judgments that are just as strong as if we ourselves were the victims.

When does a judgment become a vow?

As we form these judgments about our experiences and relationships, we begin to see certain patterns. After judgments turn to offenses, we make a vow to guide us in our interactions with that person or experience.

Webster defines vow as: “a solemn promise or pledge, esp. one made to God or a god, dedicating oneself to an act, service, or way of life.”

For example, when Mark Twain’s cat jumped on the stove, it made the following judgments: That’s hot; that hurts; I don’t like it.” These judgments led to a vow: “I’m never going to jump on a hot stove again.” This vow now protects her from getting burned in the future.

Vows vary in intensity from weak to powerful. A direct correlation exists between the power of the vow and three major contributing factors: Intensity, frequency, and currency. The strength of the vow determines how much it will influence our decisions and behavior. Here are three rules of vows:

  1. The more traumatic an experience, the more powerful the resulting vow. (Intensity)
  2. The more often an experience, the more powerful the resulting vow. (Frequency)
  3. The more recent the experience, the more powerful the resulting vow. (Currency)

What are the implications of these rules? If you suffered similar types of trauma more than once and not long ago, you probably won’t let yourself get into that situation again!

Regarding the area of trust, I have never counseled anyone who did not make one or more vows—consciously or subconsciously—to not ever trust again.

Not to be misunderstood – Vows are not all bad. Sometimes they are good—they can protect us from bad situations, and they can help us make self-protective decisions, especially when there is no time to adequately size up a situation. It is healthy to vow never to touch a hot stove, or to not trust a manipulative father. However, more often than not, we make vows that drastically affect our ability to have normal relationships.

Generalization – when a vow has a negative impact.

Complicating the issue of judgments and vows are the problems that arise from the next step in the reasoning process—generalization.

In an experiment designed to learn more about “conditioned emotional reactions,” researchers John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner presented a white laboratory rat before 11-month-old Albert.[i] When the boy reached toward the rat, the researchers scared him with a loud noise by striking a metal bar. After only two of these “tests,” little Albert withdrew his hand when the rat nosed it.

A week later, the researchers presented the rat without the noise to see if Albert would still be afraid of the rat. He was—classical conditioning had occurred. At the mere presence of the rat, Albert would cry or crawl away. He had been jolted by that “scary” noise so consistently that he associated the fear it caused in him with the rat.

The following week, the researchers placed a white rabbit in front of Albert. The child cried and tried to crawl away. The boy generalized his fear of the white rat to the white rabbit and any other white furry object. He was even afraid of cotton balls, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus mask.

Notice that Albert was only 11 months old when these experiments took place. The researchers never reconditioned him to no longer fear white furry objects or rats. He may have required counseling later in life to undo the conditioning of that experiment. As an adult, he probably didn’t remember the experiment; it didn’t physically hurt him, and it was not particularly extensive. Yet, the negative effects of his experience may have reached into his adulthood.

Within this experiment are two significant points to keep in mind as we learn about trust:

  1. Albert’s fear remained even when its cause (the loud noise) was absent.
  2. Albert generalized his fear to other similar – though unrelated – situations.

A baby’s fear of loud noises is perfectly normal, but a fear of white furry objects is not. Generalization can be intensely powerful.

Webster defines generalization as “to infer or derive a general law or precept from particular instances”.

Generalization complicates a vow because we tend to apply the vow to an inappropriate situation—much as Albert did with his fear of furry white things.

While it may seem illogical to be afraid of all things white and furry, it’s actually a form of inductive reasoning.[ii] The logic is not found in the particular experiences but is embedded in the reasoning process. The particular experiences are the surface structures. The deep structure is the reasoning process at work in these situations.

Can you see where this process may have affected your life during hurtful situations? Perhaps you have seen the worst come out in Christians through a church split and have decided that deep down all Christians are hypocrites. Perhaps you are a pastor who let a new member serve in your church, and that person betrayed you. Now, because of your hurt, no one serves unless he or she has attended for at least a year. Vows have affected all of us at some point or another, and generalization could be the result.

Stay tuned for this week’s Trust Minute video with Alan Heller, where Walk and Talk dives deeper into judgments, vows, and generalizations.

Watch Last Week’s Trust Minute – Pain is Inevitable but Misery is Optional

Watch A Trust Minute

[i] Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R., “Conditioned Emotional Reactions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14, (1920).

[ii] Inductive reasoning is a well-understood form of logic where conclusions are reached by moving from the specific to the general.


We respect your privacy.