Riddle About Perception

In one of my Transformational Leadership classes, an executive once told me, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” I did a bit of a double take and swallowed hard to keep from insulting him by laughing out loud.

Later, when I had a chance to think about that statement, I tried to conjure up a situation where a person intentionally did what he or she thought was wrong at the time. It is hard to imagine.

I suppose if you are mentally ill, it might be possible to actually do what you believe is wrong, but I am not convinced of it. Reason: Whatever action you take at a particular time, you have rationalized it to be the best thing to do at that moment, otherwise you would do something else.

That is not to say that the rest of the world would agree with your logic, but at least you have that opinion at the instant you are taking action. Let’s take some extreme examples and pick them apart to see how the mind plays tricks on us.

We would all agree that what Bernie Madoff did in bilking thousands of investors out of billions of dollars was not the right thing to do. I am sure if you interviewed him in his cell today he would agree.

But, if you were to get inside his head while he was performing these illegal and deceptive transactions, I’ll bet he believed he was actually helping people (at least at the start). Once the Ponzi Scheme started to crumble, he was still doing what he thought was best, which was trying to protect his interests.

If he thought the best thing to do was to turn himself in, he would have done that. Let me be clear, he would have been aware he was breaking the law and hurting people in the end, but his actions at any moment were still “best” according to his twisted logic.

There is a whole class of people who have the objective to be disruptive to others even at the risk of their own longevity, but they have been brainwashed into believing the wrong acts are actually earning them a special place in another life.

How about Hitler. Surely he must have known that vaporizing millions of people in ethnic cleansing was wrong. Some history books indicate that was not the case. They point out that he was acting with the conviction that he was helping build a great society that would last forever.

My question is this. Do you think it is physically possible to do something that you believe at that instant is not the best thing to do, or is the existential act of performing a deed the definition of what a person feels is best at that instant, all things considered?

Note, I am not saying we believe it is the morally correct thing to do, just the best option available at the moment. In other words, even if we know it to be morally or ethically wrong, we have rationalized the circumstances so we believe it is the best thing we can do now.

This conundrum does not keep me awake at night, but I have puzzled over it many times. So, what is the remedy?  Get yourself a trusted friend and bounce ideas off that person, especially for the edgy decisions. At least you will have more than one brain working on the conundrum.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

3 Responses to Riddle About Perception

  1. I can think of something we all do that isn’t the “best.” Have you eaten anything in the last day or two that you knew wasn’t good for you? Were you conflicted by the promise of the flavor and the feeling you got from the great food, knowing you’d have to work harder on the treadmill or skip the next meal? I believe we often make choices we know are not “best” because they are convenient, easy or promise to make us feel good. I agree with your premise that we chose the short-term benefit over the long-term consequences. But we knew the delayed gratification was a better choice, yet we simply chose to ignore it. Mike…

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Mike. I agree, That was one of the examples I flipped around in my mind. I came to the conclusion that we convince ourselves that the immediate gratification is the best thing to do now, even though we know we will pay the price later. If we truly believed the best thing to do is refrain, then we would do that. Maybe it is semantics.

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