You Are Not As Good As You Believe

Dolly Chugh, in her book The Person You Mean to Be, asks a simple question. Would a truly good person behave the way we do? And she immediately answers. No! Even if we convinced ourselves that we mean well, deep down, we are full of biases and misconceptions that force even the best of us act in ways that in retrospect, and with a different perspective, are not always good. The “you” that you aspire to be is often rather different and better than the “you” that actually exists.

Fundamental attribution error

I have talked about cognitive biases in Why Leaders Should Hire Their Opposites, but let me discuss a couple of them again. These have a significant impact on how we see ourselves and others. The fundamental attribution error is what makes you find a good excuse when you do something that is aggressive or generally not acceptable, while if someone else does exactly the same thing you scoff at them. They must be jerks.

You understand why you act a certain way, so it is easy for you to come up with a reasonable explanation. However, you are not a mind reader and don’t see what’s going on in the heads of others, so you forget that they also can have reasonable explanations.

Let’s say you are late to board your flight. You cut a line in front of the security check at the airport. In your mind a perfectly reasonable behavior as otherwise, the plane would leave without you. Now imagine another day when you have plenty of time, and you are waiting in a queue for a security check. Suddenly, someone rushes in and cuts in front of you. You get angry. “What a jerk,” you think, “you are waiting here already a half an hour, and he just skips all the people and gets in front.” What’s going on in your head is the fundamental attribution error in real life. The same situation and your brain cooks up two very different perspectives.

Confirmation bias

Our brains are not impartial data collecting devices. We chose subconsciously to hear and see mostly the information that supports our already existing point of view. And if what the eyes see and the ears hear doesn’t support it, we tend to forget or at least interpret in ways that are aligned with our view of the world. We are far from impartial, whether we realize it or not.

Research indicates that when we care about something we are more likely to ignore any adverse effects and negative information we may receive about it. For example, I consider myself somewhat ecology-conscious. I also love to travel. So I tend to ignore the impact any travel, and especially air travel has on our planet. I tend to skip over information related to the negative effects of tourism. My brain is preventing me from knowing something that would make me feel bad about what I’m doing.

Bystander effect

The bystander effect was first described when you consider a situation of a stranger collapsing on the street with a glaring need of medical help. If you are the only person around you will likely try to help to the best of your abilities. However, if there are many other people on the street, everyone sort of assumes that someone else will help and ultimately no one helps.

You can see the same effect in many other situations even in corporate life. You may be in a meeting where everyone knows that something unpopular needs to be said, or a figure of power needs to be challenged and no one does it. Or in less risky situations you may be talking with a bunch of people around the water cooler, and one of them says a derogatory joke and everyone laughs, and even you will chuckle a bit rather than confronting the individual stating that such talk is inappropriate and the joke may offend some colleagues.

Self-threat and a need of affirmation

As you can see our relationship with our brains is somewhat complicated. Our mind is our best frenemy. It is capable of lying to us if it will make us feel better.

We all need an affirmation of those around us that we are good people. That is often one of the reasons why we rather conform than being seen as different. If we are conformists, functional and productive members of the society chances are that we get that affirmation more easily than if we act like rebels.

Our reaction to what psychologists call self-threat says a lot about who we truly are deep down. If someone describes us in a way that doesn’t match our self-image we have a reaction. Often we lash out either aggressively starting to argue that they are wrong, or more passive-aggressively thinking that they just don’t know what they are talking about.

Just consider this. I believe that I’m a good person who is always fair. If you disagree with my decision how to split a box of chocolate among the team members based on their merit, you are not only explicitly challenging my decision on who from the team brings more value, but you are also implicitly challenging me being a good and fair person.

I may easily take this personally, and instead of having a logic driven conversation about the merits of people on the team, I jump into an emotionally charged conversation about why you are attacking my fairness and why are you saying I’m a terrible person. Self-threat triggers my self-preservation mode.

After all what you just read, if you still believe that you are a genuinely good person consider some of the following statements and see whether your belief survives. How many of your friends are from other cultures, races, educational background and how many are sort of similar to you? Do you keep attached to gender stereotypes? Do you laugh at jokes about other races, cultures, genders? Do you judge others who are different from you? Do you find excuses why it is the fault of the less fortunate ones that they are less fortunate?

Chances are that if you are honest with yourself, your answers to some of these questions might not make you particularly happy. You are not as good a person as you believe you are. Even though you may do many things in your life to fight poverty or inequality, there still is a part of you that is not entirely on board.

And if you still think that you are angel-like being, take the test from Project Implicit. I see myself as an extremely open-minded, tolerant, and inclusive person and I was rather disappointed with the results I’ve got. It made me think.

Moral identity

Psychologists Karl Aquino and Americus Reed talk about moral identity. It is clear from their research that most of us want to feel that we are good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to be good. We just want to feel that way.

As Dolly Chugh claims our behavior is driven not by our moral values but by our identity. We want to see ourselves as good people. That goal can be accomplished either by being a good person and acting that way or by convincing our minds that we are good people while doing things that are in exact contradiction.

That is why so many people are willing to do incredibly bad things in the name of their god, or their cause. Even though the deeds are evil, these individuals are able to convince themselves that it is for the good of the world.

Imagine it is a Christmas time. For many people in the western world, not only actual Christians, it is a time when we are pushed to be good by the environment. Love is in the air. So we go to church or make donations to some charity. Why? Is it because we want to help others? Or is it because we want to feel good about ourselves?

Chances are that the second is true. We want to feel that we are good people who are helping others. The feeling is important. However, if we were outstanding citizens who wish to help others, we would do it on a regular basis during the year. It would be our habit, and we would make sacrifices to make it happen. But most of us don’t do it.

Hidden privilege

I consider myself being pretty successful. I also realize that as I got more and more success, I was more and more dedicated to a meritocratic view of the world. I was more and more convinced that it is only my hard work and dedication that brought the success. If someone else is not as successful, they probably didn’t try hard enough.

The more success and power we get the more likely we are to dismiss the role our privilege plays and the headwinds others may have.

The first step in becoming truly good and to make the world a better place is to recognize how privileged you are. This applies to all of those who read this article, as that by itself assumes you speak English, have access to the internet, most likely your basic needs covered. You are privileged at least in some ways. It applies double if you are part of the majority in the society you live in, and little less if you are in some way a minority, being it a race, gender, religion, or anything else that makes you different and likely not to be accepted as part of the majority.

For example, I live in central Europe, and I’m a successful, well educated, white, young-ish man. You can’t get more privileged than that. I have no moral right to complain about anything in my life, and there is a lot I can do to help others who are not that privileged. Ask yourself, don’t you by any chance belong to the same, or similar, group? If yes, what are you doing with that privilege?

Helping others is not necessarily about money or worldly possessions. It is about how you treat others, how inclusive you are, how you fight biases, and what opportunities you give to others.

Dolly Chugh talks about willful awareness. Take the extra step to consider the impact your words and actions may have on others. Try to understand those who are not as privileged as you are. With this better understanding of the world and yourself, you are more likely to do the right thing.

As Chugh says, “if you are not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” It is the people from the biased majority who need to take action, not those in the minority who struggle. It is the people who show the bias, who need to get self-aware and drive education and action to change things. They have the most significant power to do so.

Most of us have problems accepting that we belong to the privileged group. People often prefer to feel like the victims, as it removes some of their responsibility for their behavior and their lives. It is not their fault that they feel miserable.

The one way to remove that belief is to realize that there are other groups who truly are the victims. Change the frame of reference and people will get a bit more accepting that maybe they are not doing as bad and that in fact, they are lucky.

Way too often we claim that we support equality and meritocracy, while in reality we ignore all the hidden forces that push the privileged group up and put the minority groups down. Before you use the words meritocracy or equality again, consider whether your definition of these words is inclusive or whether it ultimately applies only to people from the privileged group.

There is a crucial difference between equity and equality. Equity and equality are two ways you can achieve fairness, but equity is much more powerful as it removes biases and privileges out of the equation. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful, while equality is treating everyone the same. Equality is truly fair only when everyone starts from the same starting position and requires the same help.

If you are big into equality, you should think about it. Maybe you should shoot for equity instead to remove the advantages of the hidden privilege and give everyone a chance to be successful.

Change the world

If you want to change the world, you don’t need to be a rebel that incites revolutions, and you don’t need to be the person in power. Organizational scholar Debra Meyerson coined the term “tempered radical” as someone who is a successful insider in the organization and acts as a catalyst for small changes with the organization by challenging the status quo in a cautious way taking it step by step.

You can impact change in your organization even without having a formal power. Just by the way you share information, include others, the way you communicate, appreciate, provide feedback, the way you stand firm on core values, and challenge people who behave in unethical ways you can make lots of changes and fight with bias build into the organization’s processes.


What are your thoughts? Do you believe you are a good person? Do you accept that you may have unconscious bias that may prevent you from becoming truly good? Do you think this is easier to see in others than in ourselves?

Photo: geralt /

Categories: Career, Life

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