Whether it’s Donald Trump believing that he is a “stable genius” or Charles Barkley saying “I believe I’m the best-looking guy in the world and I might be right,” people (especially men) tend toward overconfidence.
This overconfidence often manifests itself in the moral realm. As Bazerman and Tenbrunsel note: “It’s likely that most of us overestimate our ethicality at one point or another. In effect, we are unaware of the gap between how ethical we think we are and how ethical we truly are.” Indeed, Marianne Jennings has observed:
Recent studies indicate that 74 percent of us believe our ethics are higher than those of our peers and 83 percent of us say that at least one-half of the people we know would list us as one of the most ethical people they know. An amazing 92 percent of us are satisfied with our ethics and character.
One increasingly plausible explanation for moral overconfidence is the phenomenon of the “true self.” Mounting evidence indicates that “people show a general tendency to conclude that deep inside every individual, there is a ‘true self’ motivating him or her to behave in ways that are virtuous.” (Newman et al). And people tend to believe that their moral character is the essence of who they are (Strohminger and Nichols). This phenomenon has been found across a broad range of cultures (De Freitas et al 2016). The concept of the “true self” is a form of “psychological essentialism”—a tendency humans have to believe that many things have an underlying reality or true nature.
The problem with all this is, of course, that there is little or no neuroscientific or psychological evidence that this is true. Our belief in the virtuous morality of our own “true selves” is a folk intuition, not a scientific fact (Love).
The good news is that there is evidence that if we believe that our essential self is moral (and most of us do) and we are focusing on trying to be authentic and live in conformity with that essential self, we will tend to act more morally (Zhang et al). Very hopeful stuff.
On the other hand, overconfidence in one’s moral character can cause people to go through life just assuming that if they run into a moral challenge, they will handle it. Their essence is, after all, good and moral. Why wouldn’t they do the right thing? But this overconfidence may lead to a lack of reflection that causes people to fail to think carefully and thoughtfully, leading them to stumble even though they generally wish to do the right thing. Stichter suggests that:
…people’s belief in their own inherent moral goodness [may be] merely assumed (as part of one’s core identity), rather than earned (say through reliably good moral behavior). This disconnection between identity and behavior can result in attempts to reinforce one’s identity as morally good, at the expense of virtuous behavior or self-improvement.
Or, people may engage in moral licensing and give themselves permission to fail to live up to their own moral standards because they are such darned good people that they deserve, just this once of course, to give themselves a break from their own exacting moral standards. Stichter (2021) refers to some of Daniel Batson’s classic studies that indicate that sometimes people strive to appear to be moral while actively attempting to avoid the costs of being so.
Or, we may, as people do, rationalize our actions and thereby convince ourselves that we are still essentially good even as we do bad things. Albert Bandura’s research on rationalizations and other methods by which people “morally disengage” from their bad actions is relevant here.
When we think of our virtuous “true self,” it is likely best, says Stichter, if we adopt a “growth mindset” (where we view our mistakes and failures as an opportunity for improvement and growth) rather than a “fixed mindset” (where we might think that our true self is what it is and there is no reason to try to improve our behavior).
One last interesting fact is that people tend not only to think of their own true selves as being virtuous; they feel the same about others. Therefore, they believe that when another person changes from being bad to being good, their true self is coming out. But when another person changes from being good to being bad, they tend to believe that circumstances are conspiring against that person (Jarrett). In other words, when people consider things at the “true self” level, they no longer think that they are more inherently moral than other people, but they still likely think that they are more moral than they truly are.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
C. Daniel Batson, What’s Wrong with Morality? (2016).
C. Daniel Batson et al., “Moral Hypocrisy: Appearing Moral to Oneself Without Being So,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(3): 525-537 (1999).
Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (2011).
Andrew Christy et al., “Why Do People Believe in a “True Self”? The Role of Essentialist Reasoning about Personal Identity and the Self,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 117(2): 386-416 (2019).
Julian De Freitas et al., “Consistent Belief in a Good True Self in Misanthropes and Three Interdependent Cultures,” Cognitive Science 42(S1): 134-160 (2018).
Julian De Freitas et al., “Moral Goodness is the Essence of Personal Identity,” Trends in Cognitive Science 22(9): 739-740 (2018).
Christian Jarrett, “There’s No Such Thing as the True Self, But It’s Still a Useful Psychological Concept,” Research Digest, Aug. 22, 2017, at https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/08/22/there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-true-self-but-its-still-a-useful-psychological-concept/.
Marianne Jennings, “Ethics and Investment Managers: True Reform” Financial Analysts Journal 61(3): 45-58 (2005).
Tobias Krettenauer, “Moral Identity as a Goal of Moral Action: A Self-determination Theory Perspective,” Journal of Moral Education 49(3): 330-345 (2020).
Shayla Love, “Why Your ‘True Self’ Is an Illusion,” Vice, May 19, 2021, at https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion.
Art Markman, “The True Self: What Does It Mean to Believe that There is a “True Self” Inside of Everyone,” Psychology Today, Sept. 21, 2017, at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201709/the-true-self.
George E. Newman et al., “Value Judgments and the True Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (XX)(X): 1-14 (2013).
Matt Stichter, The Skillfulness of Virtue: Improving Our Moral and Epistemic Lives (2018).
Matt Stichter, “The True Self as Essentially Morally Good: An Obstacle to Virtue Development?, Journal of Moral Education (March 11, 2021), available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03057240.2021.1887830?src=&journalCode=cjme20.
Terje Sparby et al., “The True Self. Critique, Nature, and Method,” Frontiers in Psychology, Oct. 22, 2019, at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02250/full.
Nina Strohminger & Shaun Nichols, “The Essential Moral Self,” Cognition 131(1): 159-171 (2014).
Hong Zhang et al., “The Authentic Moral Self: Dynamic Interplay between Perceived Authenticity and Moral Behaviors in the Workplace,” Collabra: Psychology 5(1) (2019), available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/collabra.260.
Growth Mindset: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/growth-mindset
Overconfidence Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias
Moral Equilibrium: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium