Is elite athlete “arrogance” a performance hack? Part 2 (When arrogance becomes hubris)

Last week I wrote about elite athlete “arrogance” with the suggestion that it’s actually a learned performance hack to help athletes trust “expert systems” under pressure. The more I thought about this though, the more I realised that it’s not just used by athletes, and that there are lots of reasons why it can be a thoroughly unpleasant adaptation. This week I’d like to expand on that idea.

I also pointed out that although this hack might be highly effective (and, therefore, self-sustaining) in athletes, it is most often based on a realistic talent. As I mentioned, athletes, and some other high performers (like performance artists such as dancers or musicians) get objective, real-time feedback based on their performance. There’s not a lot of room for self-delusion in this context: either you’ve achieved a certain time or score, or you haven’t. In these cases, the arrogant behaviour that assisted the athlete in achieving his or her performance is rewarded through a successful outcome (success in this context being the desired outcome by the athlete), but at least it’s rewarded based on actual skill or ability.

There are, however, a lot of other professions in which high performance is encouraged, but in which feedback isn’t real-time or objective. In these situations, arrogance could develop in much the same way (and for the same reasons) as it does for athletes, but without the objective, external feedback that reduces the likelihood for self delusion. Let me expand on this notion: there are a variety of professions or occupations that can encourage arrogance – the legal profession, politics, academia, any managerial role, medicine (the list goes on). In each of these professions, there is a call for a person to perform, and in order to do so he or she might develop a system, analogous to that in athletes, to help reduce self-questioning in order to increase performance  It’s a little different though. For athletes, arrogance allows them to trust the expert systems they’ve spent years programming. These are, effectively, cascading management systems for controlling complex motor-control routines (i.e., very specific expertise). This might hold true for some other activities too, such as in medicine where a surgeon must automate an extremely complicated routine of activities that requires unquestioning commitment. Likewise, airline pilots have to automate complicated routines so that they can perform them flawlessly under (potentially extreme) pressure. But in other occupations, such as in politics, arrogance might serve to allow unquestioning self-belief in a series of actions, philosophies, or statements that the politician has made or has done so on behalf of the party.

The extremely important distinction here is between situations in which an expert receives objective, public feedback with little room for ambiguity, and which makes it very clear whether he or she actually performed to a high level, versus those that don’t. On the one hand, if an athlete has a self-delusional view of his or her abilities, it’s unlikely that he or she will be able to sustain any objective level of performance – the facts will simply show that his or her performance isn’t at the same level as his or her belief. This will require either a reduction in that belief, or an increase in effort to improve performance. And while the arrogant behaviour might not be perceived as socially ideal, at least it motivates an effective change in behaviour. On the other hand, when a person receives feedback for a set of behaviours that is subjective, distorted, internal, or self-serving, there will be ongoing motivation to repeat the behaviour, and to believe that the behaviour is valuable and worthwhile. This is when arrogance becomes hubris.

So let’s take a minute to summarise. For athletes, who receive highly impartial feedback, arrogance might be a useful performance hack because it removes the self-doubt that can interfere with the expert systems they’ve spent years developing. This could also be the same for other areas which combine the need for high performance with immediate, objective feedback (e.g., ballet dancers, singers, pilots). In other areas where feedback isn’t necessarily objective, but high-performance is encouraged, the distorted feedback can reinforce a person’s belief in a performance that was questionable. Over time, this self-delusion becomes hubris, a misplaced pride in achievement that is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, and which can result in an ongoing cycle of self-delusion. Once a person has reached this level of self-deception, it’s highly likely that he or she will work hard to reinforce this self view, making sure that any negative feedback is ignored or actively challenged.

At this point I’d like to add another complication by introducing the Dunning-Kruger effect. This ‘law’ suggests that the more incompetent a person, the greater his or her belief in his or her own competence. Thus, people tend to overestimate their own skill levels, fail to recognise skill in others, and fail to recognise just how crap they are. In other words, the less able you are, the less able you are to realise that you’re not capable. When combined with feedback that suggests that you are capable (at least based on your cognitive filter set), this effect is likely to be amplified, so that extremely incompetent people absolutely believe in their own competence and, worse, are unable to see either the effects of their incompetence  or what they should be doing (i.e., recognising effective behaviour in others). Couple this combination with a position of power or influence and we get scary asshole effect (SAE).

We see examples of SAE all around us, from politicians who stubbornly refuse to see the world any way but their own, to surgeons who won’t change their behaviour even though their patients are dying, to our boss, who thinks the sun shines out of his arse. Sometimes they only succeed in pissing off a few people, sometimes they succeed in fucking up the whole world.

Now I’m not trying to suggest here that all politicians are psychopaths – although there is a comparison between the sort of behaviour I’m describing here and psychopathy. The big difference, however, is that psychopaths tend to recognise performance in others, and are capable of understanding other’s feelings, they just don’t empathise, and are therefore capable of acting in ways that are repugnant to the rest of us. In the case of the prideful politician, he or she isn’t psychopathic, simply deluded, and this delusion has been reinforced so deeply that it becomes very difficult to break through (they can still behave repugnantly though).

So is there a middle ground, one that encourages competence and appropriate self-belief without the need for arrogance to support that world view? Absolutely. In fact, most of my previous blog entries are about exactly that – finding an effective way of living in line with your beliefs, but in a way that isn’t slave to your thoughts and feelings, and which involves plenty of objective feedback and modification of ineffective behaviour. In other words, while athletic arrogance might be an effective way for elites to sustain their performance, it’s not a particularly healthy state (but it is, at least, tempered by real-world feedback). When this arrogance is fueled by  subjective, unrealistic feedback, it becomes extremely unhealthy for the individual, and somewhere between mildly annoying and fatal for everyone else.

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