I’m impressed with advances in safety features on new cars. The days of looking over your shoulder before changing lanes are over. Side view mirrors don’t see everything. Technology can provide alerts when cars are in your blind spot or alongside you. A flashing light or a vibrating steering wheel will tell you not to proceed. If only we had such a device to detect our personality blind spots and issue a warning to proceed carefully.
Humans have a tremendous capacity for self-deception. Examples of this can be found among addictions – “I can stop anytime I want to”; or persons with anorexia nervosa – they truly perceive themselves as fat; or narcissists – they lack empathy and the ability to be self-critical.
As it turns out, we are not good judges of ourselves. We have some amount of blindness to our own traits.
Humans are capable of unthinkable acts. And yet, many consider themselves to be acting within the realm of normal behavior. Let me give you two examples. First, you may or may not remember Ariel Castro. In October of 2013 he was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years for kidnaping and physically, sexually and emotionally abusing three women over an eleven-year period. In spite of evidence of extreme abuse, he took no accountability for his actions. He said he was “a normal guy.” He is clearly and without a doubt, out of the range of normal. His behavior is abnormal.
And then there’s a Brazilian soccer player who had his mistress murdered and fed to dogs. After serving 6.5 years, he claims he is “starting over.” 32-year-old Bruno Fernandes de Souza said: “What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happen in life. I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude.” I get the sense that he truly believes he is not a bad guy. But make no mistake, he is a bad guy. He is a sociopath.
So how does this kind of self-deception work? It works through denial, justification and minimization. People who commit harm have justified their actions to themselves in some way. They minimize or disregard the pain they create for others, thereby reducing their feelings of guilt. Rather than taking responsibility for harming others, they blame others. For example, “She deserved it.” Or, “Other people have done worse, what’s so wrong with it?” Or, in Fernandes de Souza’s case “Why can’t you get over it? I did.”
What can we do? Check our own blind spots through self-reflection. In what way are our beliefs at odds with our actions? Ask other’s for feedback on what they see as our blind spots.
And hold others accountable for their actions. Don’t let them deny, minimize or justify their hurtful actions. If we normalize bad behavior, we unleash more of it in the world. We want to inspire the best in ourselves, not the worse.