Two prominent, gifted men have been in the spotlight for their misconduct during the past year. Tiger Woods, the internationally known and admired golfer has had a dramatic change in his life with the exposure of his alleged multiple affairs. And John Edwards, a skilled successful trial lawyer and two time Presidential candidate has been in the news for his affair and having an out of wedlock child.
How is it that people who are under constant public scrutiny engage in behavior which torpedos their careers and besmirches their good name in a manner that they and their families will have great difficulty recovering from?
I have never met Mr. Woods or Mr. Edwards. Thus I cannot comment on what psychological processes are operative in their conduct. However, for forty years I have dealt with men and women who have engaged in irresponsible or criminal behavior that has brought down careers, marriages, and reputations. Most of these individuals are never known to the public. Some have established considerable reputations. I have had the opportunity to spend many hours interviewing them after the fact and have developed an understanding of a type of thinking that I term "superoptimism."
When an individual steals from his employer, for example, he knows the risks, both those to himself and the consequences to others. But his view of himself is that he will unquestionably succeed. When he commits the offense, he has not a doubt in his mind of the success of whatever his venture his. It is a state of absolute certainty. He knows he can get caught, but it is never THIS TIME. That he has already gotten away with plenty in the past adds to this state of certainty. The individual develops the superoptimism because he has a remarkable capacity to shut off from awareness fear of potential consequences (including considerations of conscience) long enough to engage in whatever the behavior is.
Offenders rarely get caught the first time for whatever infraction they commit. If you have a person who has built a stellar reputation, is in the public limeight and is much admired, from his standpoint, he can do no wrong. (Sometimes his admirers believe the same thing.) Whether a person is embezzeling from his company for the fifteenth time or engaging in a long term affair, the superoptimism plays a crucial role. And if he is a celebrity, he has plenty of opportunity and money to move around and cover up what he has been doing.
Even in the fishbowl, instant news era in which we live, superoptimism trumps in a person who has the character of a cheater, a liar, or a thief!
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