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Shaky Pedestal Syndrome: Why Our Heroes Let Us Down

November 6, 2014

 

General Patraeus, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Jonah Lehrer, Tanya Harding: an incomplete list of those who, at the peak of their careers, and the peak of their honors and accolades, fell from grace.

 

The names and details may change, but scandals are forever. No matter what, you can rest assured that someone somewhere is about to take a tumble in the eyes of their local community—or the public at large.

 

Yet each time it happens, many of us are stunned. Those we saw as the embodiment of a myriad of virtues—courage, self-restraint, fair-mindedness, perseverance, and humility—fail to live up to the ideal. It can feel almost like a betrayal: just who are these individuals, and how did they manage to dupe us?

 

A more realistic question might be, “Why do we believe virtuous traits are immutable? Why are we convinced that, once demonstrated in one arena, a quality will apply across the board to a variety of very different circumstances?”

 

Tiger Woods shows amazing self-control on the golf course. Shouldn’t that carry over into his marriage? 

 

And the answer would be “of course”—if behavioral traits were fixed and predictable. In truth, they are neither as helpfully demonstrated over and over again by headlines everywhere from tabloids to the Times.

 

Behavior is complicated. Our brains wire up for outputs depending on a complicated set of conditions and circumstances, some biological, some environmental. Woods might show great emotional restraint on the greens because he has put in thousands of hours practicing specific actions, reinforcing specific decisions. His marital fidelity did not benefit from such drills.

 

Essentially, we become good at what we routinize. The more consistency to our practiced patterns, the more predictability. In neuroscience, it’s known as Hebb’s rule: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’

 

A girl who gets A’s on every math quiz is likely to do well on a math test. But her demonstrated commitment in solving for x in no way proves she will be a reliable choice to watch your children.

 

And yet these are exactly the kinds of illogical assumptions we all make, about everybody from potential babysitters to our beloved sports heroes. We jump to conclusions all day long, then act surprised when our hastily-built pedestals come crashing down.

 

Disappointment is not inevitable, but assuming a trait will apply from one domain to another is essentially a coin flip. And, like a series of coin flips, a bunch of heads in a row doesn’t create a predictable pattern, nor does it portend the inevitability of a coin coming up tails.

 

This illusion is what famed economist Daniel Kahneman would call a System 1 failure. The emotional part of our brain will always tend towards sweeping generalizations. As a survival strategy, it makes sense, but it carries a price: that little sinking feeling in your stomach when those predictable patterns turn out to be not so predictable after all.

 

So who will our next fallen hero be? There’s only one guarantee in this world: it won’t be who you expect...

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