The Difficulty of Being Good

What would you do if you were asked to shock someone (literally)?

in 1961, people were asked to do this as a part of an infamous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram.

The volunteer (who played the role of a “teacher”) would read a string of words to a “learner,” a person hooked up to an electric-shock machine in another room.

Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher had to deliver a shock of increasing intensity. These shocks started at 15 volts and went all the way up to 450 volts.

Horrified at this inhumanity, some people stopped the experiment early, defying the supervisor’s urging to go on. Others protested and began sweating and trembling. But, goaded by the supervisor, they continued right up to 450 volts, even as the learner begged for mercy, yelled warnings about his heart condition, and then suddenly fell silent.

In the most well-known variants of the experiment, 65 percent of the volunteers went all the way.

(The volunteers didn’t know that the person in the other room was an actor who deliberately made mistakes, and the shock machine was a dud. Nothing happened to the actor no matter how many times the volunteers pressed the button.)

This experiment highlighted many bizarre traits of human beings. One of them is how easily we comply with orders from authority figures, even against our own will.

But here’s a trait I found more startling.

Before the experiment, many volunteers claimed that they would stop giving the learner a shock beyond a point. But 70 percent of the same volunteers continued right up to 450 volts. And after the experiment, many of them claimed the learner wouldn’t get shocks had he been smarter or answered more questions correctly.

In other words, they saw themselves either as heroes or victims, but never as villains.

But they weren’t the only ones. Most of us suffer from this self-serving bias.

“I can do no wrong.”

If you want first-hand proof, here’s a fun thing to try.

Share any story with your friends. Observe how many will associate themselves with the hero or the victim, and say, “others should understand this,” when you share the story’s moral. And how many will ask themselves, “What traits of the villain do I have?”

The numbers will be eerily similar to those from the Milgram experiment. A vast majority will fall in the category that overestimates its goodness while a tiny minority will doubt itself.

This subconscious desire to be seen as “good” stems from our need to make society accept us. We are, after all, social animals.

So we do whatever it takes. We strive to be whatever society wants us to be. And any trait that might show us in bad light gets locked away in a dungeon.

As time goes by, we start overestimating how good, hardworking, and fair we are. We assume that others’ unpleasant behavior and mistakes are a result of their character and personality, and we could never behave in that way.

But when we find ourselves in the same situation, we often do the same things. Only this time, we blame circumstances outside our control. We say things like, “My hand was forced,” “I’m the victim here,” or, “You have no right to judge me!”

In other words, we cut ourselves slack for doing the very things we hold others 100 percent accountable for. This is the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

The FAE is one of the many blind spots that human beings possess. These blind spots make us rigid and prejudiced. They restrict our ability to consider other arguments, to be rational, and to think intelligently.

In ancient Greece, people knew that any god or goddess whom they ignored would turn against them and destroy them. Similarly, our repressed or ignored blind spots keep growing stronger until they eventually destroy us.

How should you escape blind spots?

We perceive blind spots as inherently bad, which is why we’re eager to lock them away. But only by addressing them can we become better versions of our real selves.

Thus, the key doesn’t lie in trying to escape our blind spots (nobody can). It lies in examining them.

To be brutally honest with yourself, to admit you’re doing and saying things you don’t want to, is difficult. But this painful acknowledgment sets the wheels of change in motion.

Examining your blind spots helps you identify your triggers and figure out how to avoid them. You become aware of your actions and take responsibility for them. You also can see the underlying reasons behind people’s actions and become less judgmental. In the process, you become kinder to yourself as well.

Examining your blind spots also improves your self-esteem and mental health. Here’s how.

You recognize what you want and don’t want. As a result, you learn to draw boundaries and avoid unpleasant people and situations. You also discover your strengths—even if society labels them as “flaws”—and use them to do something remarkable.

Unbiased and objective reflection is the first step in this journey.

Look for the truth in what hurts and for the lie in what sounds too good. Reflect on stories and experiences to become a better person rather than using them to reinforce your existing beliefs. Reflection nurtures humility and learning, reinforcement breeds hubris and rigidity.

“Be gentle with yourself. Be real with yourself. Take baby steps.” — Rhonda Louise Robbins

Don’t grudgingly admit that you’re flawed. Accept the truth that you have a villain inside you. Look it in the eye instead of suppressing it.

By addressing the villain within, you empower yourself to become a real-life hero.

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