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Positive Judgmentalism

written by Yukun Zhao 28 March 2011

Yukun Zhao, MAPP '10, was born and raised near Shanghai in China. He is the Founder and President of Huaren Applied Positive Psychology Institute (HAPPI), which is dedicated to promoting positive psychology and its applications in Chinese communities. He co-founded the Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association. He is also an acclaimed author of two books published in China. Full bio. Yukun's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.

A Positive Gaze

   An appreciative view

The word judgmental has a bad name. Even though the original meaning of this word was neutral because judgments can be both negative and positive, judgmental is almost onesidedly used for negative judgments today. That’s why the most popular definition of judgmental in the urban dictionary is simply, in its usual sarcastic style, “A way of making oneself feel better, by hurting others. Usually caused by closed mindedness, and a lack of manners.”

Positive-Negativity Asymmetry

Almost no one is immune from being negatively judgmental. We seem to be more ready to judge others based on negative information than on positive information. This is called the positive-negative asymmetry effect. Guido Peeters and Janusz Czapinski reviewed accumulating research about this phenomenon and concluded that “evaluatively negative information is weighted more heavily than evaluatively positive information in the formation of overall evaluations.” For example, in research by Anderson, when a person was described with both a favorable trait and an unfavorable trait, test participants would rate the person as slightly unfavorable rather than neutral.

Focus on other people’s negative sides could be detrimental

Focus on negatives?

Judgmentalism is so prevalent that Jesus already warned us two thousand years ago, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” We all know how detrimental this annoying habit — or, to be fair, instinct — can be in our lives. We unduly distrust each others’ words, decry each others’ efforts, and dismiss each others’ characters. When our opinions come to the ears of the person we unfairly judged, being called judgmental will be the least serious consequence.

Intentional Appreciation

Powerful and instinctual as it is, negative judgmentalism is not inevitable. In essence it is a form of the negativity bias, the natural tendency of humans to give negative stimuli more weight than good ones, as described by Baumeister and colleagues. As I mentioned in my last article in PositivePsychologyNews.com, Appreciative Reading, we can battle the negativity bias successfully. As David Cooperrider and colleagues do with Appreciative Inquiry, we can consciously give more attention to the positive side of other people when we judge them. I call this Positive Judgmentalism.

Appreciating others’ strengths can make you happier

Appreciating others’ strengths

How can positive judgmentalism contribute to our well-being? Martin Seligman argues in his book, Flourish coming out on April 5 that well-being has five elements: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement (PERMA). Positive judgmentalism can help in four of them:

  • Positive emotion: We have more positive emotions when we focus on the good sides of people. Barbara Fredrickson, the leading researcher on positive emotions, listed ten forms of positive emotions. Inspiration, Love, Gratitude, and Hope can be directly induced by positive judgmentalism. The others may not seem as directly related, but they can also be assisted. For example, you can feel more Serenity when you realize people around you are better than you thought. You can have more Joy when you interact with people in whom you find more favorable traits. You can even experience more Awe when you become more aware of the strengths of others.
  •    Achievement Together

  • Relationships: This is the element that most fits positive judgmentalism. There’s no better way improving interpersonal relationships than paying attention to other people’s strengths. As Dale Carnegie best summarized, “You can make more friends in two weeks by showing interest in others than you can in two years trying to get others interested in you.” Other people will be attracted to you naturally. Furthermore, when you acknowledge other people’s strengths, the positive judgmentalism is bi-directional. Just as Jesus said, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” When you judge others positively, it often happens that you will be judged positively too.
  • Achievement: With more positive emotions and better interpersonal relationships, you are set for success. Positive judgmentalism doesn’t mean ignoring other people’s shortcomings. Instead, we pay more attention to their strengths to cancel the distorted perception brought by negativity bias, so that we can have a more accurate evaluation. With a better understanding of the people around you, achievement is more likely.
  • Meaning according to Seligman, is the feeling of “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.” We are more likely to search for the sense of belongings and serve a higher purpose in life if we take an appreciative view toward the world.

Indeed, appreciating others can make us happier, have more friends, achieve more, and possibly find the meaning of lives. That’s the power of positive judgmentalism.




Anderson, N. H. (1965). Averaging versus adding as a stimulus-combination rule in impression formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 1-9.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. and Stavros,J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2nd Edition (Book & CD) . Brunswick, OH: Crown Publishing, Inc.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Peeters, G., & Czapinski, J. (1990). Positive-negative asymmetry in evaluations: The distinction between affective and informational negativity effects. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 33-60). New York: Wiley.

Seligman, M.E.P. (in press). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Urban Dictionary (2011). Definition of judgmental

A positive gaze courtesy of [[^Raúl^]]
Hepburnesque courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt
On a pink, green, and white cloud courtesy of Wonderlane
Dancing together courtesy of Steve Voght

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Scott Asalone 30 March 2011 - 6:40 am

I really enjoy that you think through the research and offer your own perspective and thoughts. “Positive judgementalism” or I’ll call it “positive judging” has merit especially if we teach people about the positive-negative asymmetry effect. I’ve found in working with business leaders, especially when it comes to performance evaluations, offering them information about the positive-negative imbalance helps shift their mental models so at least they are aware of their bias. Even in day to day interactions, the word “feedback” has taken on mostly negative connotations. Rather than neutral, most people don’t think they are receiving feedback if all they hear is positive. They seem to want the negative. Too much focus on the deficit change model. There needs to be a balance.
Thanks for offering a way to think differently about this. We need to help change the patterns in organizations to help them focus on what is going on positively.

Yukun Zhao 30 March 2011 - 4:58 pm

Thanks for the comment, Scott!

Yes in the corporate world, people seem to be naturally looking for negative information. It is for this “probelm-to-solve” mindset that David Cooperrider proposed Appreciative Inquiry.

I especially agree with you that “Rather than neutral, most people don’t think they are receiving feedback if all they hear is positive.” To me, people seem to always think you only say good words out of politeness. It’s just like people think “critical thinking” means criticism.

And thanks for the name “positive judging”! That’s easier to say and remember. 🙂

Michael Murphy 12 April 2012 - 6:45 am


I’ve honestly never thought it as ‘judgmentalism’. But, I like it.

I’m an American living in Central China. I have a strong tendency to give genuine praise to others. I don’t give it without deeply recognizing and appreciating what others do. However, it is easy for me to see the good in others. And, I guess being a bit assertive (an American) I have no problem letting others know the good I see in them and how I appreciate them (not just what they do).

I had an experience with a male Chinese English teacher here that was a bit awkward. I was the ‘foreigner’ who came to take over his class for one hour a week. He seemed threatened by me. The students like me as I create lesson plans that are interesting and a lot of fun.

Well, this teacher would stand in the classroom after I’d entered, about to teach, and tell that I had his permission to teach HIS class. I overlooked it and graciously thanked him for the opportunity to teach his class.

Well the truth is, his class was one of the most disciplined classes I’d experienced out of another almost 20 classes. Great kids and great class. Whatever he was doing was working wonderfully.

One day, after class, I chased him down in the hallway just to tell him how great his class is. I didn’t hold back. I told him directly and completely without overdoing it. I gained an almost new best friend in this guy.

Shortly after that happened, the school was putting on a talent show for the winter holidays. This particular teacher sang a solo in the show. I took a dozen pictures of him and showed them to him and his class.

I get nothing but praise and appreciation from this teacher today. My praise for him has been based on known facts and observations. They have substance. And, he knows that I’m for real and I truly do admire his talent and his skills as a great teacher.

I judged him positively. Thank you for clarifying this in my mind. I will judge more people positively. You’ve encouraged me by this article.

Michael Murphy

Yukun Zhao 13 April 2012 - 10:32 am

Thank you so much for your story, Michael! This is really inspiring. The way you found achievements and strengths in a “foe” and express them genuinely to him was just amazing!

Actually, as you’ve probably found out, Chinese praise others much less than Americans. We were taught to “criticize and self-criticize” starting from elementary school, but never “appreciate and self-appreciate”. Therefore, genuinely positive comments are scarce in China. This actually hurts the kids’ interests in study, as you must have seen. And adults suffer from that too. That’s why your praises could win a friend for you immediately.

Are you still in China? I am flying to China in 10 days. Would love to hear more stories from you in person! (And ca???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Michael Clearman 28 June 2012 - 7:50 pm

Dear Yukun,

Thank you for your extremely insightful article on “positive judgementalism”. I found you while researching the topic of judging someone without full knowledge of all the facts surrounding an incident(s), particularly in the case of close familial relationships.

To briefly provide some context before asking for your feedback on my situation, you should know that I am a divorced father of three grown children. I was married to their mother for 25 years and have been divorced from her for 9 years. I initiated the divorce after several years of both one-on-one counseling and couple counseling failed…at least from my perspective.

Therein lies just a hint of the mountain of judgementalism by 2 out of my 3 children that I have faced for the greater part of these past years. Allow me to quickly add that the divorce was my fault and involved adultery on my part. The fact that their mother overdosed on prescription drugs as a result of my infidelity apparently cemented in those two children’s minds that the guilty stain would remain forever as my ‘scarlet letter’.

Please be aware that I have made a multitude of mistakes in my relationships with all of my children since the divorce. Prior to that event, I was, by my children and other’s reflections, a ‘model father’. Their mother’s attempted suicide has seemed to trigger in two of my children an inability to practice, in your words, positive judgementalism. Instead, my actions are constantly scrutinized under a negative judgementalism microscope and their mother, again my perspective, appears to get a free pass for in all areas of life, especially regarding events that bring our family together, i.e.-birthdays; weddings;births of grandchildren; holidays;etc.

Your thoughts will be much appreciated!

Blessings, Peace, and Passion…Michael


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