Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
Good character can be undermined by overconfidence. The human mind is an “overconfidence machine,” as columnist David Brooks wrote, and the science bears that out. Research shows that an impossibly high percentage of people — well over 50% — tend to believe that they are better than average in looks, intelligence, friendliness, athletic ability, and so on. We all tend to dismiss the role that luck plays in our success.
Often, athletes – like everyone else – are overconfident. Research shows that golfers tend to be overconfident regarding their chipping ability, free divers overconfident regarding their prospects in a competition, and student-athletes overconfident in their own financial expertise. As coaches know, upsets often happen due to overconfidence when a favored athlete or team fails to take their opponent seriously. Tennis great Andy Murray — who was once ranked number one in the world in men’s singles — admitted that overconfidence led to his first-round loss in a major tennis tournament.
This irrational overconfidence in our own abilities also applies to ethics and to the moral correctness of our judgments and actions. Research shows that in the workplace an unrealistically high percentage of people say that they are more ethical than their coworkers and competitors. And in one survey, for example, 92% of Americans said that they were satisfied with their own moral character.
Of course, athletes are also susceptible to moral overconfidence, which can lead them to fudge a rule here or there and still conclude that they are good people — rationalizing to themselves that breaking a rule is just a “technicality.” For example, in one study golfers said that “other golfers” cheated 25% of the time, but that they cheated only 8% of the time.
But scholars Anne Tenbrunsel and Max Bazerman write: “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.”
If we do not take moral issues seriously, we may make ethical missteps without meaning to. It can be counterproductive to be overconfident regarding our athletic ability, but it can be disastrous to be overconfident regarding our morality. Overconfidence in our own moral compass can cause us to completely overlook moral issues, and to make important decisions without any serious ethical reflection.
So, to excel – in life and in sports – we’d be wise to guard against assuming that just because we think we’re good people, we’ll naturally do the right thing.