What Were These Guys Thinking?

As 2010 draws to a close, we are bombarded with reviews of the year past. High and low moments in politics, popular culture, business…the lists go on and on. So, it seems appropriate for me to add to the noise.

My chosen topic is a review of those news stories that caused me to wonder “What was he thinking?”:

  • A local hospital CEO is arrested in a prostitution sting.
  • Hewlett-Packard’s CEO is fired for falsifying expense reports for dinners with a woman who charged him with sexual harassment.
  • The CEO of a high-tech Atlanta company is accused of paying a 12-year-old girl for sex.
  • Tiger Woods…Brett Favre…Charlie Sheen…’nuff said.

I could go on and on: guys who accidentally shoot friends and family while hunting, prominent public figures who get behind the wheel while impaired, religious leaders who lead secret lives that are incongruous with their public personas.

The question lingers: What were they thinking? What is the thought process that makes their behavior okay in their view? Some say it’s because they don’t think the rules apply to them. Others say it’s a fundamental flaw in their characters.

We all make bad choices, often on a daily basis. But these are so monumental, so shockingly bad that you just shake your head at the pure hubris, stupidity or lack on self-control that precedes these actions.

Experts say that—provided we have non-diseased brains—we cannot do anything that doesn’t make sense to us in some way. It’s called Rationalizing, and we do it all the time. We explain, justify or otherwise make okay our behavior.

These guys have taken rationalization to a new level. The ability to—in one particular moment—justify taking an action that most people would regard as crazy, reckless or at least foolish is astonishing.

I suspect that they don’t make the leap from acceptable behavior to unacceptable behavior in one go. It’s like arithmetic: you start by simply rounding up, and before long, you’re writing off. It becomes easier and easier to rationalize your behavior.

The amazing thing is that when we do hear the reasons behind their actions, they often sound incredibly lame. You never quite get the sense that they understand what the big deal is. Especially those who first deny everything, then try to explain why what they did was not so bad.

Recently, a state politician was detained for having a loaded gun while parked in a Planned Parenthood parking lot. His explanation? It was all a misunderstanding. He didn’t know it was a Planned Parenthood parking lot, he had a permit to carry the gun, and he was actually just stalking a woman he met online that he suspected was seeing another man. Oh, and he’s separated from his wife.

So, in this guy’s mind, spying on a woman with a loaded gun is okay. But he wants us to know that he isn’t the kind of crazy guy who would take a gun to Planned Parenthood.

Yeah, that’s okay then.

Finally, all else fails, these guys often make a tearful public apology. But have they really learned anything? Are they now applying their formidable rationalization skills to create the fiction that they, indeed, are the victim? And should we be surprised if it happens again in 2011?

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