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You're Not as Virtuous as You Think

A 1961 research project asked ordinary people to send extremely painful electric shocks to a stranger. (Unbeknownst to the participants, the fake shocks were only delivered to an actor.) A staggering 65 percent of the subjects obeyed. Most of us are confident we would have been in the 35 percent who refused to go along with this program.

But in his essay, "You're Not as Virtuous as You Think," Nitin Nohria, the Dean of the Harvard Business School, has a name for this "gap between how people believe they would behave and how they actually behave." He calls it "moral overconfidence." Nohria insightfully notes our need for repentance and confession:

In the lab, in the classroom and beyond, we tend to be less virtuous than we think we are. And a little moral humility could benefit us all. Moral overconfidence is on display in politics, in business, in sports—really, in all aspects of life … There are political candidates who say they won't use attack ads until, late in the race, they're moral overconfidence is in line with what studies find to be our generally inflated view of ourselves. We rate ourselves as above-average drivers, investors, and employees, even though math dictates that can't be true for all of us. We also tend to believe we are less likely than the typical person to exhibit negative qualities and to experience negative life events: to get divorced, become depressed, or have a heart attack.

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